Amy Knight is the author of Orders To Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.
The former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in Britain along with his daughter on March 4, was an officer with Russian military intelligence, the GRU. He reportedly passed on to British intelligence, MI6, the names of hundreds of agents working undercover for the GRU before he was arrested in Moscow in 2004 and convicted of treason. Sentenced to 13 years’ hard labour, Mr. Skripal was released by Russia in 2010 as part of a “spy swap” with the United States and has lived since then in the British city of Salisbury.
Canadians may recall that Igor Gouzenko, the spy who defected to Canada in 1945 from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, was also a GRU officer. When he defected, Mr. Gouzenko brought with him reams of documents that revealed a massive Soviet spy network in North America, sparking the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. Although Mr. Gouzenko was given RCMP protection and lived under an assumed name, George Brown, he sought publicity and even gave television interviews (with a hood over his head). So the Soviets most certainly had opportunities to kill him. But they didn’t go after Mr. Gouzenko, who died of a heart attack in 1982, just as Western intelligence services allowed their traitors, such as the notorious Kim Philby, to live out their lives peacefully in Moscow.
Not so with Mr. Skripal. After Vladimir Putin arrived in the Kremlin, the apparent unspoken agreement between Russian and Western spy agencies came to an end. Russia has made it clear that it will go after traitors with a vengeance, no matter where they are. In November 2006, not long after the Russian parliament passed a law authorizing the Federal Security Service (FSB) to assassinate Russia’s enemies abroad, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who sought asylum in Britain in 2000 and later co-operated with MI6, died after being poisoned with lethal polonium-210. A 2016 report by Sir Robert Owen, A British High Court judge who conducted a lengthy public inquiry into the poisoning, concluded that Russians Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun had been hired by the FSB to kill Mr. Litvinenko and that the murder was “probably” ordered by Mr. Putin and his FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev.
Now, with the Skripal poisoning, Britain has again pointed the finger directly at the Kremlin. British authorities have determined that the poison was a rare, extremely potent nerve agent called Novichok, which is only produced in secret laboratories in Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Wednesday that Britain is expelling 23 diplomats and will not be sending official representatives to the World Cup in Russia this summer.
Mr. Putin, who spent his early career in the KGB, has particular contempt for traitors. He even said publicly at the time of the above-mentioned spy swap: “These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.” Judging from its reaction to the British charges against Mr. Litvinenko’s killers, the Russian public shares Mr. Putin’s sentiments. Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun were widely viewed as heroes in Russia, and Mr. Lugovoy, who received a state award from Mr. Putin, is a prominent member of the Russian parliament. It may not be a coincidence that Mr. Skripal was poisoned just two weeks before Sunday’s presidential election in Russia. Although Mr. Putin is certain to win, the Kremlin wants to ensure as large a turnout as possible, and the accusations against the Kremlin reinforce Mr. Putin’s image as a stalwart defender of his country under attack from Western enemies.
It comes as no surprise the Kremlin is hanging tough and scornfully denying any involvement in the Skripal poisoning. In his first public reaction to the incident, Mr. Putin said on Thursday that he was “extremely concerned” about the “destructive and provocative” stance of the U.K. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised that Russia would expel some British diplomats soon.
Prime Minister May’s response thus far will probably do little to deter the Kremlin from such attacks in the future, especially since she does not have a good track record of standing up to the Russians. As Home Secretary, she did everything she could to discourage a full-blown inquiry into the Litvinenko murder. And the only consequence of the inquiry for Russia was an announcement that the assets of Mr. Lugovoy and Mr. Kovtun in Britain — which probably did not exist — were frozen.
Ms. May has this time threatened a crackdown in Britain against “corrupt elites” with ties to Mr. Putin, suggesting that Russian oligarchs there will come under new financial scrutiny. But one wonders how far she will be willing to go, given how much money Russian billionaires pump into the British economy. Also, according to London’s Sunday Times, Russian oligarchs and their associates have donated more than £820,000 to Ms. May’s Conservative Party since she became Prime Minister.
But the Kremlin may have not have anticipated the international reaction to this brazen murder attempt on foreign soil. In violating the 192-member Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans nerve agents, Russia has crossed a red line. On Thursday, France, Germany, Britain and the United States issued a joint statement condemning Moscow for “the first offensive use of a nerve agent since the Second World War.” This could possibly lead Britain’s allies to back new, harsh economic sanctions against Russia, on top of those already in place after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has long hoped that U.S. President Donald Trump, who has displayed an obvious affinity for Mr. Putin, might curtail those sanctions, along with those related to the Magnitsky Act, which punishes Russian human-rights abusers. The Skripal poisoning could make it difficult for Mr. Trump to pursue his pro-Kremlin agenda, especially given that several Republicans in the U.S. Congress are strong supporters of a hard line against Russia. In fact, the U.S. has just announced new sanctions against 19 Russians and five Russian entities for their alleged interference in American elections and other cyber attacks.
Mr. Putin will continue to enjoy wide popular support at home, regardless of what the West does. But international condemnation of Russia for the poisoning, accompanied by negative economic consequences, could start to erode support for Mr. Putin among members of his political elite, especially those who have residences in Britain. At least some of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin cronies must be concerned that Russia’s growing isolation from the West not only harms their interests, but those of the country as a whole. And they are probably right.