It is pay check time for Vladmir Putin. Just in case you may have had any doubt about why Putin has been supporting if not bankrolling the ‘Leave’ campaign at the EU referendum, last week’s terrorist attack in Salisbury should finally have brought some clarity. Sergei Skripal, a 66 year old former Russian military officer and MI6 operative and his daughter Yulia, 33, are left in coma on a bench in the city centre of a middle size town in the southwest of England. Of suspected (Boris Berezovsky) and blatant (Alexander Litvinenko) murders of Russian dissidents in the UK there have been a few in recent years. As the Russian state TV has made clear commenting of the episode in Salisbury, ‘England is not a safe place for Russian traitors’. But this is not your usual secret service job, done with discretion and erasing any evidence so that not only it can’t be traced back to the killer and his/her sponsors. No attempt has been made to obscure the causes of death so to make it look a suicide or an illness instead. This time it is different. From what we know, someone with an extremely poisonous and rare chemical weapon, of the type only military labs can produce and store safely, decides that it is a good idea to attack two people strolling around the city centre of a quiet English town in plain daylight. But there is more: the attackers must have been well aware that what they used was extremely dangerous and needed to be handled with extreme care, but nonetheless they decided that a city centre was a suitable place for the operation. Newspapers report that twenty-one people are now treated for poisoning by a nerve agent including the police officer that first intervened to assist the Russian victims. I’m not sure why this is not considered a terrorist attack on British soil with a chemical weapon. It looks like the British government and the press are content to be just collateral, rather than a target. UK ministers have been unusually cautions. This time no bragging from the likes of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd is apparently waiting for the outcome of the investigation. Everyone knows that this may take years. Even Boris Johnson has to deescalate his initial threat to withdraw England from the World Cup in Russia, to withdrawing the ministerial delegation from the World Cup, to banning Russia from the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (I know, fake news).
Is this an anticipation of the new post-Brexit geopolitics, where Britain becomes a killing field for the expansionist Russian state? A place no longer able to protect refugees, dissidents and even MI6 collaborators because of its diminished standing in the international arena?
It is noticeable how the EU and, for very different reasons, the United States have been unusually quiet on the case to date. Donald Trump only came out in support of Britain after over a week from the attack. Is this the EU signalling ‘this is no longer our business, you are on your own now’? If an attack of similar size had occurred and could be traced to an Islamic terrorist group, we would have certainly witnessed a different kind of response from the British authorities, grand standing promises of bringing justice and war on terror – but not this time. Once the then US president Barack Obama explaining his resistance at using the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric, explained:
The terrorist threat is real and it is dangerous. But these terrorists want to cast themselves as the vanguard of a new world order. They are not. They are thugs and they are murderers, and they should be treated that way. Fascism threatened to overrun the entire world — and we had to wage total war in response. Communism threatened not only to overturn a world order, but threatened nuclear holocaust — so we had to build armaments and alliances to contain it. Today’s terrorists can kill innocent people, but they don’t pose an existential threat to our nation, and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do. That does their job for them. It makes them more important and helps them with recruitment.
It is easier to invoke the ‘war on terror’ and promising that the country will not be defeated when the threat comes from relatively marginal groups that can attack soft and innocent targets but can do little against the hard power of the state. A terrorist attack potentially ordered by a foreign power is an altogether different matter and a much more real threat, to which an isolated Little England can only respond with silence or Boris Johnson’s empty mutterings.