Diplomatic ties between the UK and Russia are set to worsen amid speculation that a Russian national granted refuge in the UK has been poisoned.
Sergei Skripal, 66, was convicted of spying for the UK, and was involved in 2010 in one of the most significant spy swaps since the end of the Cold War between the USA and Russia, where Moscow released 4 prisoners in exchange for the return for 10 of its spies, including the high-profile, celebrity-like figure of Anna Chapman. It was a consequence of this arrangement that Skripal was released and granted refuge in the UK.
He and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia Skripal, were found unconscious on a park bench in the Wiltshire city of Salisbury on Sunday. They are both in intensive care at Salisbury District Hospital, with some news sources claiming that the opioid Fentanyl had been the poison. As a precaution, a nearby Zizzi restaurant has been closed until more is known about the unknown substance suspected of making Skripal and his daughter critically ill. Skripal, while he was a Colonel, supplied information to the secret intelligence service, MI6. It was a result of this that he was found guilty in Russia of ‘high treason in the form of espionage’.
Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told journalists Moscow was prepared to assist in the investigation, although also asserted: ‘We see this tragic situation but we don’t have information on what could have led to this, what he was engaged in’.
To know for definite whether the Kremlin had anything to do with the poisoning is too early to say, but the story does carry a harrowing reminder of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination via suspected polonium-infused tea in 2006. He, like Skripal, sought refuge in the UK after undermining the Russian Secret Service. Litvinenko (pictured below) had been viewed as a traitor for accusing Russia of becoming a mafia state. He claimed of perceived mass corruption and cooperation with criminal gangs and even went so far as accusing the FSB (Federal Security Service of Russia) of being behind the 2002 Moscow Theatre siege which led to 170 civilian fatalities.
In the aftermath of the Litvinenko assassination, ties between the two countries deteriorated severely to a point many considered a post-Cold War low. The Russian courts refused to extradite the two agents involved, which led to four diplomats from each country being expelled in retaliation. With many viewing the UK response as timid, and given the events that have happened since (the annexation of Crimea, the Syrian crisis, and suspected Russian election meddling in the UK and USA), we could see a tougher stance taken, by Theresa May and her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, this time around. The latter only three months ago declared a wish for improved relations with Russia.
Two assassination attempts on British soil will no doubt face huge public condemnation. But with many nations already walking a tightrope when it comes to tackling Russia’s aggressive foreign policy it leaves very few options available to the government. It will certainly be interesting to see how they tackle this latest stumbling block in thawing diplomatic relations with Moscow.