The case of the poisoned spy in the UK already sounds like something from a movie. It all started on March 4th, when a former Russian spy and his daughter were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury. The investigation found that they had been poisoned by a potent nerve agent, though how this was administered has not yet been ascertained. Were they poisoned at a restaurant? In their car? How many other people have been exposed to the poison? All these questions are still being asked, but when it comes to who is responsible, the answer from the British Foreign Office is clear: “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable.”
This all seems horribly familiar.
The first and most obvious familiarity is the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. Litvinenko was a former FSB officer, and after his defection, he wrote books accusing the Russian secret services of committing acts of terrorism in order to bring Putin to power. He was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210, and died in November 2006. It wasn’t until 2016 that a public inquiry concluded that his murder was an FSB operation that was probably personally approved by Putin.
“For years Moscow rejected allegations of high-level involvement in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. (…) Saying that Litvinenko was killed because he was an enemy of the state will raise pressure on the British government to take real action — the steps taken nearly a decade ago were only limited in scope. That may pose difficulties given the importance of Russia’s role in the Middle East, but without tough action people may ask if the Russian government has been allowed to get away with what has been described as an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of London.” (BBC)
Theresa May was Home Secretary when the results of the public inquiry were released, and described the murder as a “blatant and unacceptable” breach of international law. That was 2016. Since then, we’ve had collusion accusations, hacking, bot farms, interference in elections — and now the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. It wasn’t radioactive polonium this time, but a nerve agent from a group known as novichok, which was developed by the Russians. So far, so similar to the Litvinenko murder. Clear-cut case, right?
But that’s not the only similarity nagging in my brain. I don’t claim to have a Sherlockian mind palace, but I do have something I affectionately refer to as a ‘nerd brain’, which is full of fairly useless trivia and movie quotes. And the nerd brain alarms were sounding.
Firstly, it’s hard to read about nerve agents like VX and Sarin gas without immediately picturing Nicholas Cage waving flares on Alcatraz. That’s just a given. But this wasn’t the only movie that came to mind with the Skripal case. For this, we need to go back to 2002’s The Sum Of All Fears, with Batfleck in earnest blockbuster mode, trying to prevent all-out war between President Fowler (James Cromwell) and President Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), as Russia and the US are locked in rapidly escalating retaliations based on misinformation. And it started with a chemical weapon attack — the use of novichok, to be precise.
In the movie, rogue military generals launch a chemical attack in Chechnya, apparently frustrated that the new President is not a hard-liner, and taking matters into their own hands. World leaders are disgusted. Nemerov is furious, but he takes the blame for it anyway. Why? In his words: “Better to appear guilty than impotent.” If he admitted to the world that he couldn’t control his military, he’d look weak. Better for the world to fear him than to look down on him. This urge to not look weak is something he shares with his American counterpart, Fowler. “They have to know we aren’t weak,” he says, as he prepares to order a military response to a devastating attack on Baltimore. “I cannot stop what I did not start,” says Nemerov, as he prepares his troops in retaliation. It quickly descends into posturing and military penis-measuring, until Batfleck’s voice of reason tells them to calm the hell down and listen to some evidence. He has receipts. It works, eventually.
We’re not at that level of stand off (yet), but it has started. Theresa May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the UK; Putin has vowed to do the same in retaliation. Is this just an illusion of wounded innocence from Putin? Because if Skripal was a state-ordered hit, then the retaliation was May’s, and Putin’s actions are re-retaliation. I know that people who don’t mind doing awful things probably have no qualms about lying, but something about this feels off. May’s re-re-retaliation is in the works, with the Guardian reporting that “if Moscow escalated the row with its reprisals, the UK had ready a second phase of possible measures in place. No.10 will now have to decide whether to risk a spiral of further punishments.” And so it will continue.
May initially gave Putin a deadline to explain what happened with the novichok; she posed the question: Was it deliberately supplied for the hit on Skripal, or did some of it go missing, to be used by someone else? It’s a question that sounds like it offers an opportunity for diplomatic face-saving. It wasn’t us; it must have been stolen. But in reality, it’s a question that asks: Are you evil or incompetent? Is that a question that a President can answer? Remember what we learned from the calm, even-tempered Nemerov: “Better to appear guilty than impotent.” And Putin is no Nemerov.
Faced with a question that he couldn’t easily answer, Putin went on the attack. Rhetorically, anyway. The Guardian reported that “The Kremlin has called direct international accusations that Vladimir Putin ordered the Salisbury nerge agent attack ‘shocking and unforgivable’.” After Litvinenko, can it really be perceived as ‘shocking’? Surely it was to be expected? This could just be gaslighting of course, but the rhetoric here seems aggressively misused. The Kremlin’s umbrage at the UK’s suspicion seems highly shady. It’s like asking someone if they are cheating on you, and having them blow up in indignation at the question, rather than answering it, or addressing why the question might have been asked in the first place. It’s not reassuring. But Putin isn’t a reassuring guy. And as I said above, the question didn’t leave him with any good options.
I have no problem believing that Russia was responsible for the attempted murders in Salisbury. But if we think about The Sum Of All Fears, there is a plausible case for them not being responsible. It comes down to motive. Why would they want to kill Skripal now? They had ample time and opportunity to do so without causing an international incident. If the poisoning is meant to stand as a warning to other potential double agents, surely they would want the message to be clear and unequivocal? Who stands to gain from this? If not the Kremlin, then who?
In the movie, the US and Russia are put on a collision course by a group that wants them to exterminate each other so that they can pick up the pieces afterwards. In the original Tom Clancy novel, this group was Muslim extremists, but this was changed in the movie to neo-Nazis. And that’s where this case gets even more worrying. Here’s the movie’s main antagonist explaining his motives:
“All over the world, right wing parties, nationalist movements, Nazis, Aryan nations, all working together for the first time. Is that not perfect? (…) Hitler lived in a time when fascism, like a virus, needed a strong host in order to spread. But the world was too big. Fortunately, the world has changed. Global communications, cable TV, the internet… Today, the world is smaller. And we don’t need a strong host in order to spread. This virus is airborne.”
Well, damn. Doesn’t that feel more relevant now than it did even just 16 years ago? So, to sum up: there’s a neo-Nazi plot that takes advantage of international political tension to engineer a war between Russia and the West, so that they can establish a fascist superstate in Europe once the smoke clears. Right-o. It’s not exactly unimaginable, is it?
It is entirely plausible that this was an act sanctioned by the Kremlin. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to believe that. And if that’s true, then there must be consequences. But it’s possible that there’s something else going on here, and it would be prudent to figure that out before engaging in rapidly escalating action. To do that, there needs to be a grown up conversation. And when someone says that we shouldn’t let anti-Russian prejudice get in the way of rationally looking at the evidence, we shouldn’t make out that that person is a traitor. That’s not helpful.
Last night, BBC photoshopped a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn onto a red background, adjacent to the Kremlin, Moscow, and altered his hat to match communist style headwear. They ran that as their background to BBC Newsnight discussion on the Salisbury Attack. pic.twitter.com/UOIbxf6rBp— Tory Fibs (@ToryFibs) March 16, 2018
In The Sum Of All Fears, things get really bad before it all calms down. Here’s hoping that the lessons of the movie are learned before it gets that far. Where’s Batfleck when you need him, eh?