William Reynolds is a 3rd year War Studies student with interests in counterinsurgency, maritime security and contemporary British security. He has been Head of Operations for KCL Crisis 2018, acted as a King’s Research Fellow for Dr Whetham at the Centre of Military Ethics and is currently a Conservation Volunteer on HMS Belfast.
The poisoning of former Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on the 4th March (2018) has sent ripples across the political, domestic and foreign spheres of policy within the United Kingdom. Appearing from nowhere, with no leadup, warning or claims of self-attribution, the attack has come as a shock to many, with social and public media abuzz with speculation. With some going so far to claim it comparable with 9/11, though this is clearly a significant exaggeration, the events of March the 4th will not quietly fade away in public discussion. What are the implications for Russian-UK relations? Why, if the accusations prove correct, did Russia do this? And does this mark an escalation into an unspoken Cold War 2.0? These are the questions that are being asked, and what this article will attempt to assess.
First, what actually happened? The initial ‘attack’ was reported at 1615 hours on March 4th when a 999 call from Sergei Skripal was made from his residence. By the end of the day, both he and his daughter were hospitalised, alongside the presiding officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, in a serious condition and a further two police officers were treated for minor conditions. Overall, 21 UK citizens were possibly exposed to the agent, but it was only those listed above who have, so far, been actively treated.
By March the 9th, after analysis from the UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at the nearby Port Down facility, military personnel drawn from the Defence CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) Centre, 29 EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) and Search Group, Royal Marines from 40 Commando, elements from 26 and 27 Squadrons RAF Regiment, and specialised Fuchs operated by Falcon Squadron Royal Tank Regiment were deployed to contain and deal with the exposed sites. A local Zizzi restaurant was closed due to possible exposure. So at least something positive came out of it.
Novichok Nerve Agent
Novichok is a series of nerve agents developed within the Soviet Union and Russia from 1971 to 1993. Its main purpose was to be used as a battlefield force multiplier, being able to counter NATO CBRN protective gear and being undetectable by current instruments. It further had the bonus of circumventing the Chemical Weapons Convention as it did not draw from the list of controlled precursors. Much like nuclear material, chemical agents have signatures unique to their places of production. A series of factors ranging from the workers to physical conditions result in agents with unique chemical characteristics associated only with their places of respective origin. The belief in NATO, and supported by defected Soviet assets, states that Novichok agents have unique characteristics only associated with the Shikhany facility in Saratov Oblast, Russia.
Military personnel suiting up to contain the exposed areas.
After further assessment, the PM Theresa May publicly identified the agent as one of the Novichok family of agents on March the 12th. A deadline was set for an explanation from Russia as to how a deadly nerve agent made it to Sailsbury, which, as the PM put it, was responded to with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance” by the Russian government. Thus, on the 14th of March the UK unveiled a series of measures as a response to this failure for clarification:
- 23 Russian diplomats and their families were expelled from the Country
- Increase of checks on private flights, custom and freight involving Russian citizens
- Freezing Russian state assets where there is evidence that they could be a threat to property and life of UK nationals and residents
- A boycott from the Royal Family and government of the 2018 World Cup
- Suspension of all high-level bilateral contact with the Russian state
- Plans to consider new laws to aid against actions of ‘hostile states’
- A new £48 million chemical weapons defence centre
- Offering voluntary vaccinations against Anthrax to British armed forces personnel deployed at high readiness
Expelled Russian ambassador board their plane bound for Russia.
By March the 15th the leaders of France, Germany, the UK and the US released a joint message which stated that it was “highly likely that Russia was responsible” and called upon Russia to provide complete disclosure to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), as the UK had given the organisation a sample of the agent earlier in the week.
The Russian government remained consistent on their position of denial throughout the process. In retaliation to UK actions, the Russian government expelled 23 UK diplomats and ordered the closure of both the Consulate in St Petersburg and the British Council Office in Moscow.
The ‘Russian way of warfare’
The debate continues as to who can be attributed to the attack. Members of the opposition in parliament suggest the possibility of Mafia links, rather than the government itself. This inability to categorically attribute, or at least attribute to such a degree to satisfy some critics, risks an uncoordinated response if it is indeed the Russian government at play. What does seem to be apparent however, is that resulting Russian actions, both officially in the political space and unofficially on social media, do share many similarities with disinformation campaigns of the past.
NATO loves to throw around new definitions. Be it ‘network-centric’, ‘multi-spectrum’ or ‘4th Generation Warfare’. However, a term that has stuck, and for good reason, is that of Hybrid Warfare. A doctrine attributed to the Russian Chief of Staff General Valey Gerasimov, though he strongly denies translating his academic thoughts into a Russian ‘doctrine’, Hybrid Warfare is a multi-spectrum approach, utilising all forms of human activity from War, Politics, Society and Economics, to achieve one’s political ends. Much of what was stated in Gerasimov’s writings played itself out on the plains of Ukraine and Crimea. Though it hasn’t been repeated since, the utility of non-state actors as a viable tool without attribution has many NATO border states worried. After all, could not Russia repeat the same in a NATO border state? Without concrete attribution, such actions would risk breaking the alliance apart if Article V was triggered. Such a debate is still ongoing, with no real clear answer discernible as of yet. It is not in the purview of this article to deliver judgement. Rather, the context in which Sailsbury happened should be assessed in regard to Hybrid Warfare.
It is the disinformation campaigns associated with Ukraine and Crimea which are of interest. Though I cheekily referred to it as the Russian way of warfare, drawing upon Liddell Hart’s characterisation of the British affinity to conduct war from the sea, there are aspects of it which can be called uniquely Russian so far. Through news agencies such as Sputnik and Russia Today the Russian government is able to spin its own story of events occurring. Though this isn’t unique to Russia, it is in conjunction with what can only be described as a vast army of ‘trolls’ and ‘bots’ on social media who push the Russian narrative as hard and as far as possible. Indeed, the US 2016 elections saw 36,000 of these Russian bots actively tweeting on social media.
Possible Image of a Russian Social Media bot.
Due partly to the interconnectivity we enjoy today, this allows particularly ‘loud’ individuals to propagate their message directly to the public (here’s looking at you Trump). The combination of ‘loud’ accounts and the quantity of them, in conjunction with a message that is stuck to rigidly, actively increases the visibility of the message over possibly more well-reasoned debates. This in turn creates enough of a ‘smoke screen’ to hinder any counter actions against the state. Without political and national consensus, Western states tend to falter in their resolve.
To link it back to Sailsbury, an estimated 2,800 Russian bots were believed to have “sowed confusion after poison attacks”. There is further evidence which can place attribution to Russian guilt. Exactly a week before the attack occurred, a Russian YouTube account called Group.M uploaded 4 videos of the former spy Skripal. Whilst it may have been coincidental, a second source believed it to be part of a Russian organised campaign of disinformation. In conjunction with the other elements assessed, it is hard to disagree.
Even after the attack, information continues to be deployed by Russia to create doubt of attribution. A particularly outrageous claim, by both ex-KGB and Russian politicians, is that it was a ‘False Flag’ operation. The proximity of Porton Down (8 miles) to the location of the attack has invited conjecture that the UK has poisoned its own citizens. This feels more like a reflection of Russian attitudes to what is and isn’t acceptable for a state to do. Even bringing it up infers that a modicum of legitimacy can be attached to it via the Russian people. The newest element is a ‘former friend’, Vladimir Timoshkov, who has recently come forward stating that Skripal “regretted being a double agent” and wanted to go home. The logic being, why would Russia kill someone who felt repentant for what he had done? Rather, I’d suggest this new information reflects a pivot in strategy as the realisation that the UK public wasn’t quite as divided on the issue as first thought.
So what are the implications for the Sailsbury attack? Is a Cold War 2.0 approaching? It seems unlikely. Rather, the Sailsbury attack has brought forward some suggestions as to possibly why it occurred and highlighted aspects for the wider UK political sphere to consider.
- Losing control
There are two possible reasonings as to why Russia may have decided to act now. This is all rather theoretical, so feel free to skip forward if you desire. A worrying conclusion one could draw to this unexpected action is that Putin has simply lost control of highly dangerous chemical weapons, or worse, parts of his intelligence apparatus. Neither bodes well for the West, as a more bellicose Russian intelligence service without the political limitations could lead to further acts of espionage. It is worth noting that there is little evidence to support either theory so far. Indeed, it seems even less likely that this was a ‘mafia hit’, as the ability to maintain a Novochok supply, assuming no new batches were made post-93, without state funding is universally agreed as almost impossible. Until we have proof of the Illuminati or lizard people ruling over us, I’d wager that the chemical was deployed via state actors.
Thus, we are left with Putin losing control of certain actors within his intelligence circles. The attack was very public and very traceable. Therefore, any smoke screen for attribution would be brittle in nature. Putin would have known this going in. So why do it? A plausible explanation is that of rogue agencies. However, it is all rather theoretical. Thus, anything further then ‘He’s lost control’ is conjecture.
The second option is just that Russia does not care. As stated, the chemical is easily traceable. But with the proximity of the Russian elections, one could argue that Putin is attempting to reinforce the narrative of ‘the West’ actively attempting to undermine Russia. In this sense, it could be a Russian pseudo ‘False Flag’ operation. Though I’m sure many just rolled their eyes at the very casual comparison just made, one could argue that Russia conducted the attack to provoke a response which in turn provides Putin with legitimacy. Indeed, insurgent groups do this often, provoking a sharp response through their attacks in order to cause civilian casualties, thus increasing their legitimacy as they portray the security forces as barbaric.
- ‘Useful idiots’
A particularly troubling aspect of recent events are the ‘useful idiots’ within UK society. That is, British citizens, with no apparent links to Russia or their disinformation campaign, actively aiding in spreading the confusion and casting doubt on attribution. The most shocking event was in the emergency House of Commons session, where the leader of the opposition decided to use his speech to both caution attributing it to Russia and suggesting that government cuts could have possibly caused this. Whilst of course advising calm is neither bad nor being ‘an idiot’, the political point-scoring driven off the back of it provoked much shock from both sides of the House. It is tradition for the opposition to back the government in acts of foreign policy, especially after an attack. Even Clement Atlee voiced support of Chamberlains decision to go to war (1939), despite knowing full well that appeasement had driven them to this point.
This quickly leads to the social media sphere. Many were quick to point out the links between Sailsbury and the decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003. The reliance on intelligence, rather than an overt act of war, has left many peddling the Russian line. This ‘Iraq syndrome’ seems to have infected much of society, with even Jeremy Corbyn citing Iraq as a reason to not attribute it to Russia as of now. Within the same speech Corbyn cast doubt on the validity of British intelligence, again citing Iraq as an example of their capabilities. Ignoring the fact that a possible future PM is laying into elements of the Civil Service, funnily enough echoing Rumsfeld and Cheney who both based the decision to invade Iraq off the back of their distrust of CIA information, comparing Sailsbury to Iraq is factually false. As stated by Lawrence Freedman, the writer of the Chilcot Report, Sailsbury intelligence is based off scientific facts rather than the human intelligence associated with Iraq. However, the ‘useful idiots’ continue to cite it like gospel.
The final grating aspect of these ‘useful idiots’ is their ability to give Russia the benefit of the doubt. There have been calls, again also by Corbyn, to give Russia a sample of the agent to test for themselves. To which Lawrence Freedman sarcastically tweeted, “They should also do all the anti-doping tests on their athletes.” The argument being that we can dismiss any evidence they produce out of hand if it proves to be false. The issue here is that doing so adds legitimacy to their narrative. Handing samples over and even entertaining the idea of listening to their assessment implies the chance that we could be willing to believe them. Such legitimacy served to feed their narrative more than offset the doubt. The fact that many calling for this do not trust the UK intelligence services, or indeed the French and German ones, who undoubtedly assessed the evidence given to them independent of UK influence, and the international OPCW is worrying to say the least. Indeed, one would suggest that this could have easily been mitigated if Corbyn had sided with UK govt policy here. After all, much of the ‘useful idiot’ activity on social media is perpetuated by the self-described Corbynites. One is inclined to believe that they would have changed their tune if Corbyn had voiced stronger opposition to Russia. However, it is not simply the Corbynites who make up this area. Russian disinformation seems to benefit from a collection of groups who take the view that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thus, over the past week we have seen Anarchists, Marxists, Nationalists and Scottish Nationalists all trumpet their support of different explanations suggesting it wasn’t a Russian attack. Russian disinformation may be good at its job, but the UK public seems to be rather better.
With this aside, is there a chance of an escalation? Whilst true this represents a significant step up from the usual, though not for the people of Ukraine or Syria, I’d wager there is little chance of a ‘Cold War’ developing as a result. Russian and UK relations have been chequered in recent years, with the UK leading the charge within the EU for sanctions against them. Not much has changed since then. Rather, it appears to be a spike in tensions over what has been a game played since 2014. The UK alone does not represent an existential threat to Russia, but its heavily interconnected alliance frameworks do. However, it seems doubtful that the UK will push for more than economic retaliation. As a triggering of Article V would risk destroying the alliance, with possible declines of assistance occurring, thus undermining the entire legitimacy of NATO. With hard power not viable, what of soft power? It is here that seems the most likely axis of advance for the UK. Through its still quite considerable soft power, the UK will most likely press for further sanctions and tighten the grip already being felt. Indeed, this may prove beneficial. Both France and Germany have been considering loosening the sanctions put in place for Ukraine. The Sailsbury attacks may prove to not only be the evidence required to prevent the lifting of sanctions, but enhance them.
 See, Toxic Storm for Royal Marines – https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2018/march/06/180306-toxic-storm-for-royal-marines-in-major-chemical-exercise; for 29 EOD Elite UK Forces – http://www.eliteukforces.info/eod/army-eod/; for RAF Reg RAF Winterbourne Gunner – https://www.raf.mod.uk/our-organisation/stations/raf-winterbourne-gunner/; and for a full overview, Rebecca Taylor and David Mercer, ‘Spy Poisoning: Amber Rudd Chairs Cobra meeting as military deployed in Sailsbury’, Sky News, Accessed 25/03/18.
 Mirzayanov, Vil (1995), “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: AN Insider’s View”, Global Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Hearings Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, 104th Cong., pp.393-405.
 Ewan MacAskill, ‘Novichok: nerve agent produced at only one facility says expert’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/14/nerve-agent-novichok-produced-russia-site-expert – Accessed 25/03/18.
 Heather Stewart, Peter Walker and Julian Borger, ‘Russia threatens retaliation after Britain expels 23 diplomats’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/14/may-expels-23-russian-diplomats-response-spy-poisoning – Accessed 25/03/18.
 ‘Spy Posioning: How is the UK retaliating against Russia?’, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-43380378 – Accessed 25/03/18; and ‘UK Defence Secretary tells Russia go away and shut up’, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43405686 – Accessed 25/03/18Owen Matthews ‘Has Vladimir Putin Lost Control of Russia’s Assassins?’, Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-lost-control-russia-assassins-840598 – Accessed 25/03/18.
 ‘Salisbury attack: Joint statement from the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom’, Government of the United Kingdom, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/salisbury-attack-joint-statement-from-the-leaders-of-france-germany-the-united-states-and-the-united-kingdom – Accessed 25/03/1.
 Judith Vonberg and Oliver Carroll, ‘Russia expels 23 British diplomats in retaliation as diplomatic spat over Sergei Skripal poisoning intensifies’, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-spy-poison-british-diplomats-expelled-sergei-skripal-nerve-agent-a8260671.html – Accessed 25/03/18.
 Jeremy Corbyn, ‘The Sailsbury attack was appalling. But we must avoid a drift to conflict’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/15/salisbury-attack-conflict-britain-cold-war – Accessed 25/03/18
 General Valey Gerasimov, ‘The Value of Science is in the Foresight’, Military Review, Vol.96 (2016): pp.23 – 29.
 For more see, Holden Reid, Brian. “The British Way in Warfare: Liddell Hart’s Idea and Its Legacy.” The RUSI Journal, Vol.156 (2011): 70-76.
 ‘Russia using disinformation to sow discord in the West, Britain’s Prime Minister says’, NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/14/564013066/russia-using-disinformation-to-sow-discord-in-west-britains-prime-minister-says – Accessed 25/03/18.
 For more, see H.Smith, ‘What costs will democracies bear? A review of popular theories of casualty aversion’, Armed Forces & Society, Vol.31 (2005)
Debroah Haynes, ‘Skripal Attack: 2,800 Russian bots sowed confusion after poison attacks’, The Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/2-800-russian-bots-sowed-confusion-after-poison-attacks-zf6lvb3nc – Accessed 25/03/18
 Debroah Haynes, ‘Skripal Attack: YouTube videos analysed for links to disinformation campaign’, The Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/skripal-attack-youtube-videos-analysed-disinformation-campaign-link-53fwb6pl9 – Accessed 24/03/18
 Owen Matthews ‘Has Vladimir Putin Lost Control of Russia’s Assassins?’, Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-lost-control-russia-assassins-840598 – Accessed 25/03/18
 Skripal, ‘regretted being a double agent’, BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-europe-43519494/skripal-regretted-being-double-agent – Accessed 25/03/18
 Owen Matthews ‘Has Vladimir Putin Lost Control of Russia’s Assassins?’, Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-lost-control-russia-assassins-840598 – Accessed 25/03/18
 Greg Heffer, ‘Jeremy Corbyn infuriates House of Commons with Russia response’, Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/jeremy-corbyn-infuriates-house-of-commons-with-russia-response-11287599 – Accessed 25/03/18.
 Guy Faulconbridge, ‘Britain’s Labour Leader warns of rushing into new Cold War without full evidence.’, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-russia-corbyn/british-labour-leader-warns-of-rushing-into-new-cold-war-without-full-evidence-idUSKCN1GS0SN – Accessed 25/03/18
 Lawrence Freedman on Twitter (14th March 2018), https://twitter.com/LawDavF/status/973967779534704641 – Accessed 25/03/18
 Such as Owen Jones, https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/973952909682626562 – Accessed 25/03/18;
 Rowena Mason and Patrick Wintour, ‘UK to press European allies for tougher sanctions against Russia over MH17’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/21/uk-europe-tougher-sanctions-russia-mh17-putin – Accessed 25/03/18
 Macron as finance minister wished the sanctions to be lifted in 2016, ‘Macron in Mosocow: France wants Russian sanctions lifted by mid-year’, rfi, http://en.rfi.fr/economy/20160125-macron-moscow-france-wants-russia-sanctions-lifted-mid-year – Accessed 25/03/18; and Merkel also, ‘Merkel: EU will lift Russian sanctions when Minsk accords implemented’, politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/merkel-eu-will-lift-russia-sanctions-when-minsk-accords-implemented/ – Accessed 25/03/18