It was like something out of a John le Carré novel: The Russian spook turned British double agent slumped on a bench in the ancient cathedral town of Salisbury, his unconscious daughter by his side.
But for all the Cold War atmospherics, the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal isn’t just a spy game.
Rather, the attempted assassination has the look of something more sinister still: a Kremlin-orchestrated chemical-weapons attack on a NATO country.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said as much this week, pointing the finger unambiguously at Russia.
Her strongest evidence is also what makes this episode so disturbing: The substance that incapacitated the Skripals was one of the so-called Novichok nerve agents – highly lethal poisons that Soviet scientists began developing in the 1970s, and which only the Russian state is known to possess.
That Russian agents should attempt to murder a British citizen like Mr. Skripal is galling enough. It is far worse that they seem to have used a weapon of mass destruction to accomplish the task, in however clumsily targeted a manner.
The Novichok nerve agents were developed as part of a Cold War chemical arms race. The Soviets likely produced enough to kill hundreds of thousands of people, according to a chemist who helped develop these weapons and later spoke out.
The high toxicity of the one used in Salisbury is why the Skripals were not the only casualties. A police officer, along with dozens more people, have received medical attention, though none of them seems to have fallen seriously ill.
Russia, of course, has denied involvement. But despite being pressed by the British, they have not offered a credible explanation for how one of their country’s most closely guarded and powerful weapons came to be used in Britain.
If Moscow ordered the use of this terrible poison in a public place, in broad daylight, on British soil, they are indeed guilty of “an unlawful use of force … against the United Kingdom,” as Ms. May has charged.
The British PM responded forcefully on Wednesday, ordering the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and cutting off high-level contacts between the two countries.
But that alone isn’t enough. The fact is, the typical responses to this kind of aggression aren’t fit for the purpose.
The Russians appear to have staged a pseudo-military attack on Britain, but a response in kind would be reckless and immoral. No one should stoop to Moscow’s level.
At the same time, the usual playbook of expelling diplomats and imposing sanctions has not deterred Mr. Putin in the past. When former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with radioactive material, more than a decade ago, Britain eventually responded by expelling Russian diplomats. It didn’t prevent the Salisbury attack.
Nor has the international sanction regime against Russia kept it from intervening in Ukraine, meddling in foreign election campaigns, and sabre-rattling about its nuclear arsenal.
Under Mr. Putin’s rule, Russia has shown time and again that it does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbours or of NATO countries, regardless of foreign scolding.
That doesn’t mean paralysis or ambiguity are viable options (though the Trump administration has tried both in the face of the Novichok attack). Instead, the West should aim its response at where Mr. Putin is most vulnerable. That means Kremlin corruption.
The British government is now looking at bringing in a so-called Magnitsky law of the kind Canada and the United States have adopted to target corrupt and human-rights-abusing officials in foreign countries.
That’s the smart approach. Mr. Putin’s regime and figures connected to it are guilty of outright plunder, and it’s widely believed that the Russian president takes part in the embezzlement. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which exposed the Panama Papers, Mr. Putin’s circle of friends, relatives and business cronies hold at least $30-billion of what is believed to be his money.
London happens to be a playpen for Kremlin-connected oligarchs who launder their ill-gotten billions through lavish real-estate holdings and other baubles while living in the extreme luxury that the British capital affords.
Freezing their assets and imposing a visa ban on them, as Magnitsky-style laws do, would hit Mr. Putin where it hurts. Britain should quickly draw up the necessary legislation.