July 10, 2018
IntelBrief: Murder by Novichok
In March 2018, British authorities raced to understand and address the brazen assassination attempt in the town of Salisbury of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. An extensive investigation revealed that an extremely rare and regulated chemical weapon was used in the murder attempt and that Russia was responsible for the attack. Russia responded to the investigation and the subsequent condemnation by British officials, to include Prime Minister Theresa May, with outright dismissal and even mockery online.
The matter, seemingly closed, has been reopened. On July 8, 2018, an English woman named Dawn Sturgess died from exposure to Novichok. Sturgess and her partner, Charlie Rowley, were somehow exposed to the nerve agent in the town of Salisbury, where officials were once again trying to determine the exact location and method of exposure to a chemical agent that was developed and controlled by the former Soviet Union--now Russia.
The death of Sturgess re-ignites a pressing question: how should the UK respond to a country, Russia, that is blatantly breaking international law and attempting to assassinate perceived enemies by using an exotic weapon – now killing an Englishwoman in the process. The question of countering Russia’s open aggression and outright flouting of international law and norms goes far beyond Salisbury. While the UK is considering its options, the U.S. government must consider this most recent incident alongside an ongoing debate about U.S. relations with Russia. Seven U.S. senators spent the 4th of July holiday in Moscow discussing the easing of sanctions on Russia, willing to ignore Russia's actions over the last few years, including that it invaded eastern Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea, openly interfered and influenced in elections including in the U.S. in 2016 and the UK Brexit referendum, conducted indiscriminate airstrikes against Syrian civilians and blocked UN measures against the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons.
The attempted assassination in March prompted a large containment process, with HAZMAT teams in full protective gear trying to isolate possible contaminated areas, such as the Skripals car as well as a bench on which they were found. Yet, it is impossible to de-contaminate an entire city and authorities do not know where or how Sturgess and Rowley came into contact with Novichok, though that they did so is not in dispute; blood tests came back positive for Novichok exposure. Mr. Rowley remains in critical condition at Salisbury District Hospital, where Sturgess died. Prime Minister May stated she was ‘appalled and shocked’ at the newest exposure and the death of Sturgess, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said all accusations that Russia had anything to do with the incident involving a nerve agent were ‘absurd.’
The schism between the U.S. and the UK—as well as with other European countries and NATO—over Russia will likely widen in the near term, as the Trump administration and its congressional supporters appear determined to move closer to Russia while moving away from long-standing alliances. The death of a UK citizen by a Russian nerve agent will likely not change that course, even with this week’s upcoming NATO summit and the follow-on meeting between U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin.
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