Analysis

Nerve agent in our midst is haunting, dangerous — and divisive

The U.K. is seeking international verification to help stamp out skepticism after declaring it's highly likely that Russia poisoned a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil.

Deterrence, investigation by independent watchdog crucial to defeat skeptics

Soldiers wearing protective clothing remove a police vehicle from a parking lot in Salisbury, England, on March 11. The following day, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said a former Russian spy who lived in Salisbury was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The nerve agent deployed in our midst targeted two people in Britain, but it haunts us all.

It has prompted swift international condemnation, sharply raised tensions between Russia and the West — and it might have touched the lives of as many as 500 unsuspecting people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even more disturbingly, the attack — perpetrated before the end of the first quarter of 2018 — confirms yet again we seem to be in an age when nerve-agents-as-murder-weapons have gone mainstream.

Like others before it — most notably in Syria, and the Kuala Lumpur airport last year — the brazen attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury serves as a reminder that red lines will be pushed if such acts go unpunished.

Just days before its presidential election, Russia stands accused of being behind this latest outrage. It has strongly disputed the charge and has even suggested it was a false flag operation by the British themselves to sully its reputation. It has demanded access to a sample of the agent and the findings pointing to its complicity.

Though naturally it is the loudest and most skeptical, Russia isn't the only party sowing doubt about British Prime Minister Theresa May's conclusions — or even about the best way forward now that a red line has been pushed again.

The French president's spokesperson described May's actions as "fantasy politics," and said, "Once the elements are proven, then the time will come for decisions to be made."

Theresa May announced the sanctions against Russia after Moscow ignored a deadline to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to target a former spy in England. 9:58

Even in the British parliament, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said more evidence was necessary to establish whether Russia was directly behind the attack, or had lost control over the nerve agent it developed, as May suggested was possible earlier this week.

May has said she is pushing for a "robust international response."

U.K., allies unite with new statement 

Nothing of the kind is happening yet. But on Thursday, the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and France issued a strongly worded joint statement, asserting they "share the U.K. assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation" besides Russia's involvement, and that "its failure to address the legitimate request by the U.K. government further underlines its responsibility. 

"We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury."

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped over and unresponsive on a park bench on March 4 shortly after they left an Italian restaurant in Salisbury. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

May had elicited symbolic support and condemnations of Russia from members of the UN Security Council, including the U.S.; from NATO, and others, including Canada. Notably, the Global Affairs statement on Wednesday quotes Chrystia Freeland condemning the "despicable" use of the chemical agent, adding that Russia's likely involvement in this attack is a serious breach of the international "rules-based order" — but like the joint statement Thursday from the U.S. and European countries, she offers no specific remedy or appropriate response.

On Thursday, a more strongly worded statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, "The United Kingdom can count on Canada's full support in efforts to hold Russia to account for this unacceptable and unlawful behaviour."

Calls for international co-operation 

What Freeland did counsel is for "all states" to co-operate fully with British investigators.

Corbyn, too, stressed the importance of further investigation, including one by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Corbyn has since been pilloried for not lining up behind the government in a full-throated condemnation of Russia.

And yet both Britain and the OPCW have acknowledged they have been in contact over the attack, and the organization has been invited to independently confirm the veracity of its claims.

Still seeking independent verification

"We are working with the police to enable the OPCW to independently verify our analysis," May said in a statement Wednesday.

In other words, the U.K. sees some utility in an independent investigation of the incident. This underlines the notion that there are still many unanswered questions about the Salisbury attack: May herself said earlier this week it was unclear yet whether Russia was behind the attack or lost control of a program that produced Novichok, the series of deadly nerve agents experts say was only made on one site by Russia.

Police officers stand on duty outside a pub that was secured as part of the investigation into the March 4 poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The OPCW isn't likely to determine which of those scenarios is true, but its work can provide independent evidence about the substance and its origins, helping stamp out skepticism, and any Russian attempts to obfuscate.

In their joint statement Thursday, the leaders of the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. called on Russia to provide "full and complete disclosure" of the Novichok program to the OPCW, saying what happened in Salisbury "threatens the security of us all."

The OPCW was the organization that confirmed the use of Sarin in Syria's eastern Ghouta region back in 2013, and subsequently made a less-than-completely-successful attempt to rid the country of its stockpiles.  

It has also been watching warily as chemical weapons made their debut as an assassination tool — outside a war zone.

The allegation itself is very worrying. It was the first time, in fact, that a nerve agent was used in an assassination in the recent history.- OPCW director general AhmetUzumcu

The first known attempted assassination by a nerve agent in recent history was in the first quarter of last year — at the Kuala Lumpur airport. The chemical was VX, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother was dead within minutes.

"The allegation itself is very worrying. It was the first time, in fact, that a nerve agent was used in an assassination in the recent history," OPCW director Ahmet Uzumcu told CBC in an interview last month.

"Therefore we need to be vigilant."

In a statement this week, Uzumcu said "it is extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used to harm people.

"Those found responsible for this use must be held accountable for their actions."

Many others have in recent days also counselled the necessity of unambiguous deterrence.

Fears of nerve agent use beyond Salisbury

Among them on Wednesday was Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative to the UN, who called this a "defining moment."

If no concrete measures are taken, "Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used," she said.

But beyond sanctions on Russia — which already exist — and the U.K. expelling 23 diplomats and suspending high-level contact, what could these measures look like going forward?

There has been growing chatter about a possible British cyber attack, but no official nod yet.

Critics point to Britain's less-than-stellar history in pushing Russia back. In 2006, Russian agents poisoned another U.K.-based Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, using radioactive polonium-210 at a central London hotel. Britain expelled diplomats then, too. But then it was business as usual and has mostly been since.

Litvinenko's widow pushes U.K. for more

In an interview, his widow Marina Litvinenko told CBC News the U.K. could go much further.

"I want the British government to take [this] more seriously," she said.

It is, however, worth noting it took 10 years for an inquiry to conclude her husband was murdered by Russian agents and that it was "probable" the order came from Vladimir Putin.

It's only been 11 days since the Salisbury incident.

Despite its rhetoric, Britain will be after ironclad, internationally verifiable facts that can defeat any skeptic. Along with the international community it is also under pressure to produce a much tougher, subsequent plan of action that could help dissuade the next would-be assassin from haunting the streets.

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