National Security

Skripal Poisoning Is Putin’s Warning to Agents

A former Russian spy and his daughter are in critical condition after being poisoned with a nerve agent in a Salisbury, England shopping mall.  The attack on Sergei Skripal was a clear warning from Russian President Putin to all his operatives and agents of influence: the price of betrayal is a slow death.  It is part of Putin’s attempt to stop the fraying of his network of influence in Europe, and shore up internal control.

Skripal Poisoning

Sergei Skripal was a Russian colonel in military intelligence (the GRU).  He was convicted in 2006 of spying for Great Britain, for revealing the identities of Russian agents in Europe.  Col. Skripal was sentenced to thirteen years in prison, but was released to Britain in a 2010 spy swap.

The Skripal poisoning follows the recent deaths of other family members, some under suspicious circumstances.

Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious March 4th on a bench at The Maltings, a shopping center in Salisbury, Wiltshire.  Later investigation suggests that they were victims of an attack with a chemical weapon, a nerve agent.  They both are hospitalized, in critical condition.  The attack on them follows the recent deaths of other family members, some under suspicious circumstances.

British authorities have noted the similarities between Skripal’s case and the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium.  Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, suggested in an interview with BBC radio that there may be a Russian hand in the attack.  “It could indeed potentially have been the FSB (Russian intelligence services) or the Kremlin could have been behind it.”

Nerve Agent Confirmed

Several days after the attack, Britain’s top police official in charge of counter-terrorism confirmed that the Skripals had been exposed to a nerve agent.  Mark Ripley said, “This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent.”  Ripley refused to say what chemical was involved, but said that the pair had been targeted specifically.

“This needs expertise and a special place to make it or you will kill yourself. You don’t make this in your kitchen.”

The first policeman who responded to the scene was also hospitalized, and is now in stable condition after being released form intensive care.  His symptoms were similar to those of the Skripals.  About 180 military chemical decontamination experts have been deployed to the crime scene to ensure there is no further threat to the public.

A Russian government spokesperson, Maria Zhakarova, denied any involvement by the Russian government. The use of a sophisticated chemical agent indicates governmental involvement, however.  Experts in chemical weapons say that manufacturing a toxin like VX or sarin requires a laboratory and expertise.

An anonymous analyst told The Guardian that it could not be done by someone ordering supplies from the internet. “This needs expertise and a special place to make it or you will kill yourself. It’s only a small amount, but you don’t make this in your kitchen.”

Vladimir Corleone?

Rush Limbaugh compares Putin to Michael Corleone of The Godfather, and Russia’s actions since the Skripal poisoning support the comparison.  Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was not involved in the killing, but  offered to help any inquiries into the matter.  He added that there had been no official request for Russian government assistance yet.

“The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world. And don’t choose Britain as a place to live.  Something is wrong there.”

Russian denials were undercut, however, by a prominent news anchor on Russian state-controlled television Wednesday night.  After several days of silence in the Russian media about the affair, Channel One’s Kirill Kleimenov reported on the incident and said it was a warning to traitors everywhere.  Kleimenov warned that drug and alcohol addiction, depression, stress-related heart attacks and even suicide were the “professional illnesses of a traitor.”

“I don’t wish death on anyone, but for purely educational purposes, I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career,” he said.  “The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world.”

Kleimenov followed up with an equally sinister message for “traitors or those who simply hate their country in their free time.  Don’t choose Britain as a place to live.  Something is wrong there. Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there.”

The message is clear: there is no escape, not even when living in the West.  The reference to “too many strange incidents” is a boast about other suspicious deaths with Russian connections.  MP Yvette Cooper requested Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week to investigate fourteen other deaths that may have been Russian-sponsored murders.

Putin is thumbing his nose at the British government.  He also is sending a message to Russians inside Russia, that there is no escape.  At the same time, he is warning Russians and their agents throughout Europe that they had better stay loyal to him, or they and their families will die.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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