Chemical Weapons In The Shadow Of Magna Carta

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3531, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3531, Hoover Institution Archives.

Located in rural southwest England, Salisbury has long been famous for its medieval cathedral and its proximity to Stonehenge. It even houses a rare copy of that precious document of western constitutional government, Magna Carta.

Yet Salisbury is suddenly infamous because it was there on March 4 that former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in a public place with a lethal nerve agent. Traces of the chemical were found in a pub and a pizza place they had visited. The Skripals themselves were found incoherent on a park bench. They remain hospitalized in critical condition and a first responder is in serious condition.

A retired Russian colonel, Skripal was convicted of treason in Moscow in 2006 for having worked as a double agent for the UK. Four years later he was exchanged as part of a spy swap for 10 Russian agents arrested in the U.S. Skripal moved to Salisbury and became a British citizen.

The British government claims that the nerve agent used in Salisbury was part of a group of agents known as Novichok, developed by Soviet scientists for military use. Novichok means “newcomer” in Russian. Yet historians know that chemical weapons go back a long way. Although they came into their own in the First World War their use dates back to ancient times. In spite of a 1997 treaty banning them, chemical weapons continue to be deployed today, as in the Syrian Civil War.

As for Skripal, an act of revenge against a former double-agent is no surprise. The Russians thereby made it brutally clear that when it comes to payback, no one is safe, not even in the most law-abiding of western countries. What is surprising is the choice of weapons.

After all, a simple bullet would have taken out Skripal. Why did the assassin use a nerve agent? Why use something that caused collateral damage, frightened the local population and aroused the anger of a nuclear-power/NATO member state? Why did the Russians use a weapon that has their fingerprints all over it?

One possibility is a simple blunder. Another is a move by someone in Russia’s Deep State to embarrass Putin. The third possibility is that it was a deliberate act by the Russian government to show strength—a chemical form of saber-rattling.

So the British government has concluded, with support from the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. They have jointly blamed the attack on Russia, with UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calling it “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself ordered the attack. Russia has denied the charge. Britain and Russia have each expelled about two dozen of the other’s diplomats.

A quote from the movie Dr. Zhivago comes to mind. During the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) the ruthless general Strelnikov orders a village burned. Zhivago points out that it was the wrong village. Strelnikov replies, “They always say that, and what does it matter? A village betrays us, a village is burned. The point's made.”

Zhivago’s reply: “Your point—their village.”

Perhaps the Russians like to remind us, from time to time, that we all live in that village.