Insiders say all trails lead back to Moscow, suggesting a deliberate act to incite row with UK.
The response from the Kremlin has been uncompromising. The foreign ministry described Theresa May’s accusation against Moscow as a “circus show”. Its boss Sergei Lavrov said there was no proof the poison used against Sergei Skripal came from Russia. And the embassy in London promised an “equal and opposite reaction” to any UK measures.
Beneath this bluster, however, is cool calculation. Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury with a Moscow-made military nerve agent, developed during the 1970s and 1980s during the cold war. Whoever wanted to murder him might have used a subtler weapon. Instead, his assassins picked novichok. How it was deployed remains unclear.
One former employee of the Russian special services said nerve agents were used only if the goal was to draw attention. “This is a very dirty method. There’s a risk of contaminating other people, which creates additional difficulties,” he told the Kommersant newspaper, adding: “There are far more delicate methods that professionals use.”
In other words, novichok was a gruesome calling card. As those who organised the hit must have known, the trail goes directly back to Moscow. The incident even took place down the road from Porton Down, the government’s military research base, which swiftly tested and identified the toxin.
All of which means Vladimir Putin and his FSB spy agency have probably sought to engineer a confrontation with the UK. Why now?
There are many theories. The most obvious answer is Sunday’s presidential election. True, Putin is guaranteed to win. He has scarcely bothered campaigning. But the Kremlin remains worried about turnout, amid widespread voter apathy and calls from Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition politician, to boycott the vote. The authorities want to the poll to look authentic, even if it isn’t.
Over the next few days, state TV channels will pump out this message: Moscow is again the victim of a western conspiracy. Russia under siege is a favourite Kremlin theme. Conflicts with the west can bear some fruit: Putin has maintained the bump in his nominal popularity rating after his annexation of Crimea, despite western condemnation and sanctions. The wave of patriotism that followed also split the Russian opposition.
So a row with London can do Putin no harm, especially among voters who share his uncompromising nationalist worldview and his smouldering sense of victimhood.
One former senior Foreign Office adviser said it was a mistake to assume that Skripal’s spy work for MI6 triggered the decision to poison him in Salisbury. Skripal was merely the “instrument”. The real target was the UK, he said. “I don’t think it was about Skripal. It was a geo-political intervention.”
The adviser added: “Moscow’s goal is to demonstrate the UK’s weakness and isolation and to drive a wedge between us and other countries. The Kremlin understands how to make these sorts of interventions at just below the level that will trigger a serious collective reaction against them.”
If May fails to react adequately, she would appear weak. If she tries to fight back against Russia, she would discover the limits of collective solidarity, the adviser suggested.
There are other theories. Grigol Chkhartishvili, best known for writing detective novels under the pen name Boris Akunin, suggested Putin was betting on a British retaliation that would drive wealthy and prominent Russians out of London. The community of Russian émigrés (and families of wealthy businessmen and officials) was “one of the weak points of the regime”, he wrote, and forcing them out would be “useful and beneficial” for Putin.
There has been some outrage from EU capitals. Belgium’s former premier Guy Verhofstadt called for a common European response and said EU leaders should discuss the incident at a summit next week. But given Brexit, Europe’s response is likely to be limited when it comes to practical retaliation.
Until Tuesday evening, Donald Trump had remained silent over the Kremlin’s probable role. He has since told Theresa May in a phone call that his support is conditional on the facts supporting her case. Downing Street said Trump had agreed that “the Russian government must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used”.
Until then, only one senior member of his administration had acknowledged that Russia could be responsible: Rex Tillerson. On Tuesday Trump fired Tillerson as secretary of state, underlining that May is likely to receive little or no help from the US, once the UK’s closest ally.
The Skripal attack also appears to have been calculated for its domestic impact. It sends a chilling message to anyone from inside Russia’s spy agencies and bureaucracy thinking of cooperating with western intelligence. The message: that the state can mete out punishment at its own pleasure and in the most barbaric way. Oh, and your family might suffer too.
Moscow’s covert operation to support Trump during the 2016 US election was a large enterprise. It involved career intelligence officers, cyber-criminals and professional trolls. Only Putin and a few top officials know its full scope. But a wider group of individuals understand parts.
Anyone thinking of cooperating with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating collusion, will think twice.