The attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain poses a fundamental question for governments around the world: Will they demand accountability from Russia for this despicable act or will they turn a blind eye to the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II? While it may be tempting to accept Russian assurances that it is not involved, there is too much evidence to blithely accept Moscow’s denials. For wavering governments, another way to frame the situation is this: What would they do if there was a terrorist attack on their soil that employed weapons of mass destruction and threatened hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives?
Skripal was a former double agent working in Russia: He was a member of Russian military intelligence (the GRU), who worked for British intelligence during the 1990s and 2000s, until his arrest in 2004. In 2006, he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 2010, he was swapped, along with other spies in Russia, for 10 Russian spies arrested in the United States. He settled in the United Kingdom and lived quietly until March 4, when he and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a bench near a shopping center in the town of Salisbury. Both are fighting for their lives and may never regain consciousness or full mental capacity.
An investigation revealed that the two were poisoned with Novichok, a powerful nerve agent that was only produced by the former Soviet Union and later by Russia. Moscow denies any responsibility — calling the charges politically motivated and “a circus show” — and even asserted that it did not make the weapon, despite extensive proof, including admissions by scientists who worked on the deadly agent. No other country is known to have developed the weapon.
Other circumstantial evidence includes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2010 pledge that “traitors always end badly. Traitors will kick the bucket. … These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.” That menacing promise assumed greater significance given a 2006 Russian law that permits extrajudicial killing abroad of individuals Moscow believes are guilty of extremism and terrorism. And then there is the long list of individuals who have died under suspicious circumstances — including poisoning — around the world who were known to have crossed Moscow.
Some will counter that murder has long been part of the spy game, or that such risks are natural for individuals who become involved in high-level political intrigue. Many of the suspicious deaths involve people who became extremely wealthy because of ties to government and politicians. But murder was never part of Cold War spy game rules and the casual bloodletting of recent years is a new phenomenon, one that appears to be tied to the lawlessness and impunity of the Putin regime.
More significantly, while the Skripal case is an attempted assassination, it is also a terror attack that used an extremely deadly nerve agent. In addition to the victims, three police officers who responded to the attack were hospitalized and one remains in serious condition. The furniture that the victims sat on was so contaminated that it had to be destroyed. A public health warning was issued to the estimated 500 customers at the restaurant where Skripal ate, urging them to wash their clothes and possessions. Imagine if the agent had been used in a more public place with less attention to minimizing its spread.
It is that fear of mass casualties that has prompted governments around the world to expel more than 100 Russia diplomats in response. This is not just attempted murder: It was a terror attack that was likely state-sanctioned. The United States, 23 European countries, Canada, Australia and NATO have joined the U.K. in denouncing Russia and sent home Russian diplomats and spies in retaliation.
While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “condemned the incident” and voiced “outrage” over the attack, the government’s response has been muted, saying Russia “must respond in a serious manner” and demanding that Moscow assist the investigation. Foreign Minister Taro Kono has said that “use of chemical weapons is unacceptable,” but he too is holding back and waiting for an investigation. At his news conference after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kono noted that the two countries “have many tasks that require intensive cooperation” and that Japan will appropriately manage relations with Russia.
That is a diplomatic answer — in the worst sense of the word. If an attack like this occurred in Japan and the Japanese government had determined its provenance with sufficient certainty to retaliate against the perpetrator, it would be offended and betrayed if an ally suggested that it needed more evidence to act. Tokyo would insist on full support. The failure to present a united front against such behavior will ensure that Russia is not deterred. Japan must stand strong against such lawlessness, and stand with its partners in London and elsewhere.