Putin has already used a chemical weapon. In Salisbury | Carole Cadwalladr
More than two weeks of war in Ukraine, and the unthinkable is not only thought, but said out loud: could Putin use nuclear weapons?
The tenacity of the Ukrainian armed forces in countering it was exceptional, but could this make Putin even more dangerous? And what happens if he fails with conventional weapons? Will he use unconventional ones next?
It’s the right question. It’s only four years too late. Because he has already used unconventional weapons. Not in Ukraine, but here in the UK. On March 4, 2018, Putin used a chemical weapon against a civilian population. Our civilian population. US.
The poisoning of Sergei Skripal may have been portrayed in the British press as a “botched assassination attempt”, but that is only half of a more chilling story. For Salisbury is not just a pretty, quintessentially English market town with a famous cathedral which the Skripal poisoners used to taunt us when they claimed to have visited. It is also home to the British military and some of its most senior officers, and borders the UK’s largest military training ground, Salisbury Plain.
And Putin hit the heart. Was it Skripal he was after? Or Salisbury? Or, as it turns out, both? Because two Russian soldiers – GRU military intelligence officers – caught a scheduled flight to London, strolled down a street in Salisbury without bothering to disguise themselves in front of 100 or more surveillance cameras, and released a deadly nerve gas. And then? Then they threw the bottle away.
Three months later, an Amesbury resident, Charlie Rowley, fished it out of a charity bin and gave it to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess. She died in agony. This was a British citizen who was murdered by the Kremlin.
But here’s what’s even worse. What if she hadn’t received the vial? What if the bottle went to the charity shop? Or in a garbage truck? Or crushed and taken to the top? Or had entered the water table?
in one last job interview, Fiona Hill, former national security adviser for Russia to Donald Trump, offers her thoughts on the incident. “There was enough nerve gas in that bottle to kill several thousand people,” she said. It proved that Putin is ready to use any “cruel and unusual weapon” he has, she said. “And he wants us to know that.”
He wants us to know that. And according to Hill’s analysis, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal looks less like a “botched assassination attempt” and more like a botched terrorist attack. At least it was a clear, unmistakable message from Russia to NATO, the very definition of hybrid warfare: a combined military and information operation.
Sure, governments around the world read it that way. It was seen as an attack on NATO. There was unprecedented international cooperation: NATO agreed and imposed sanctions. Hundreds of Russian “diplomats” – spies – have been expelled from embassies around the world.
But what we must now acknowledge is that the UK government’s response to the Skripal poisoning, and in particular Boris Johnson’s role in it, was a blatant national security failure.
To understand this, we have to rewind a few months. On October 30, 2017, the FBI announced that its investigation into Russian interference in the US elections had begun under the direction of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in London. Two days later, on November 1, Labor MP Chris Bryant asked then-Foreign Secretary Johnson if he had seen any evidence of Russian interference in the UK election. “No sausage,” he said. “rivet.”
But two weeks later, then-Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a landmark speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet: “Russia,” she said. “We know what you’re doing. And you won’t succeed.” She also explained how Russia launched “an ongoing campaign of cyber, espionage and corruption”. That includes interfering in elections.” And, crucially, she acknowledged the “weapons” of information on social media, Russia’s information warfare, which was a key part of the FBI’s investigation. Three months later, Putin sent her a weapons-grade nerve agent on an Aeroflot Moscow-London flight.
But it doesn’t end there. Because in April, Johnson flew to NATO headquarters in Brussels and met the US Secretary of State and the other foreign ministers of the alliance: it was a crucial, highly sensitive meeting to discuss how NATO would deal with Russia ahead of its July summit.
A year later, the Guardian would reveal that Johnson had traveled straight from that summit to the Italian villa of Evgeny Lebedev, the UK-based Russian newspaper owner. She posted a photo showing him alone and disheveled at San Francesco d’Assisi Airport with no security check in sight.
And four months later, in November 2019, we reported in the observer a unique fact: that Alexander Lebedev, Evgeny’s father, a former KGB officer, had flown in to join him. Anyone familiar with Russian intelligence will tell you that there is no such thing as a former KGB officer. But as always in the UK, we’re grabbing the wrong details at the wrong time: last week, news reports erupted into a scandal that Johnson had made Evgeny a lord against the advice of his own security services (he denies interfering with the appointment).
Of course it is. But the meeting with Alexander Lebedev is of a different order. And it’s not a scandal, it’s a national security failure. And that needs to be investigated now.
The meeting with Alexander Lebedev was conducted with no security protocol, knowledge of his department officials, or presumably the prime minister. And when word got out, Johnson shouldn’t have just been fired, he should have been questioned by both the police and the Prime Minister. Except for the time when the observer revealed Johnson was the prime minister.
We need to finally understand what happened here. Russia’s attack on our democracy has been covered up. That was unequivocally revealed by the Russia report of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. And all available evidence points to this cover-up harking back to Johnson. It was Johnson who claimed there was “no sausage” of evidence. It was Johnson who suppressed publication of the report. And it was Johnson who, as Foreign Secretary, had direct oversight of MI6 when, the report said, it was “actively avoiding” investigations.
It shouldn’t have taken the prospect of a third world war to reveal this. And it didn’t. It’s been in sight for two and a half years. It’s in sight now. And our national security depends on us all finally seeing it.