Spies in Salisbury, Murderers in Moscow, And a London Full of Liars: The Poisoning of Sergei Skripal And its Impact on International Relations
By Injae Lee
Salisbury is not the kind of place one would expect to become the epicenter of a new Cold War. A quiet but bustling city/village in the southwestern English countryside, it is known for its towering cathedral and busy markets—not the kind of town the next 007 movie would be set in. But, on March 4, 2018, when spy-turned-defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found near death by police on a bench near the city square, Salisbury—and Russia’s already-fraught tensions with the free world—were thrown into turmoil. Nothing was more surprising than the United Kingdom’s robust response. After all, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mandate to rule had been crippled by the stunning snap election results last June. So, when May accused Russia of the act and set forth a list of demands—and punishments—on the floor of Parliament, the world was shocked. More eye-opening still was that the West, long victims of Putin’s bullying and manipulation, took a firm, unified response to the Skripal case. With dozens of Russian diplomats from Seattle to Madrid packing their bags and going home, the Kremlin’s response has been one of anger and ballast, but also undeniably of surprise. Whatever his goal may have been, Putin’s future ones will certainly be impeded by a unified West, and it will do him well to take this as a lesson moving into his third term in office.
To better understand this diplomatic énigme, one must first look at the man who is at the center of it. Sergei Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU. Well respected and successful, most were surprised when Skripal was arrested in 2004 by the FSB, Russia’s security agency. The FSB alleged that in 1995, Skripal had exchanged classified Russian information to Britain’s MI6 agency in exchange for payment. After pleading guilty and confessing, Skripal was sentenced to thirteen years in prison, pardoned in 2010 by President Dmitry Medvedev, and then released as part of a spy exchange with the United States. He and his wife moved to Britain and kept a low profile, living in Salisbury. Nothing worth noting happened until last month, when Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who visiting from Moscow, were found poisoned. Now, they remain hospitalized in critical condition, while their case has sparked the current diplomatic conundrum.
Britain responded with defiance. For the past few years, from the invasions of Crimea and Georgia to Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. and French elections, Putin had bullied and challenged the United States and its allies across the world. Emboldened by the West’s weak response, Putin continued to undermine the liberal world order, culminating in the poisoning of Mr. Skripal a month ago. Then, the unexpected happened: Mr. Putin finally met resistance, and from an unlikely source too. For much of her term so far in 10 Downing, Theresa May had been seen as a weak Prime Minister, particularly after her devastating losses in the snap election last June. Leading a divided party and consumed by Brexit, May’s strong response in the House of Commons surprised observers across the globe. When Russia failed to meet Britain’s demand to provide an explanation to the poisoning, May went even further, expelling 23 Russian diplomats from London and vowing to crack down on Russian spies and assets in the U.K. A furious Kremlin quickly responded in kind, expelling an equal amount of diplomats, but the motion had been set in place. Soon, over 100 Russian diplomats had been expelled from all over the world, from France to Australia, who each accused many of the expelled of being spies in disguise. Perhaps the most head-turning response to Russia’s aggression, however, came from the United States. President Donald Trump, accused of collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, shockingly ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closed the consulate in Seattle. While Moscow has quickly reacted in kind to these expulsions across the globe, just recently announcing the removal of a further 50 British diplomats, it is clear that Russia has finally crossed the line. With the Kremlin reeling from the devastation of its foreign intelligence network, and the heightened tensions with a re-invigorated West, the Skripal episode has turned into an unlikely victory for the West. But the fact of the matter is, it isn’t over yet. The solidarity and unity of the free world is an impressive feat, particularly in the midst of Brexit. But as the countries of the Western world return to their disputes and squabbles, and as Britain continues to struggle with a post-Brexit world, it remains to be seen whether London and her allies will sustain the initiative, or whether Russia will seize it once again.
Perhaps the most poignant way to end this article is with an update on the Skripals themselves. Sergei and his daughter Yulia remain hospitalized, and while Yulia has fully recovered, Mr. Skripal remains in critical condition. If he does survive, there is a good chance he will be an invalid for life. The tragedy of the Skripals is a lesson—and a mirror—of the fraught world of diplomacy and espionage, and it shows the price one may pay for choosing to engage in such a game.