Putin 'wants everyone to know it's him' with brazen nerve agent attack in the UK, experts say
- Experts think that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind an attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal.
- They told Business Insider that he likely chose a Russian-made nerve agent to brazenly claim ownership of the attempted murder while officially denying it.
- Russia has been linked to 15 similar cases of poisoning, and a raft of geopolitical aggressions since Putin came to power.
- There is little the UK can do to directly hit back at Russia for the attack, which may have motivated the Kremlin to push the envelope.
The UK and US said on Monday that a Russian-made nerve agent had been unleashed on the English city of Salisbury, and that either Russia's government or rogue Russian agents must have carried out the attack.
But the circumstances surrounding the attack have forced a consensus among experts - Russian President Vladimir Putin used the attack to send a deliberate message.The attack targeted Sergei Skripal, a double agent who passed Russian state secrets to British intelligence in the 1990s and early 2000. He was later pardoned and was sent to the UK as part of a spy swap in 2010.
Skripal and his daughter were hospitalized by the attack, and hundreds of residents of the town were warned to wash their clothes to remove risk of exposure to the deadly chemical.
The chemical, as identified by British scientists, was Novichok, a family of fourth-generation nerve agent, developed from the late 1980s onwards, according to the Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook.
Until Skripal's poisoning, many thought Novichok was a Cold War fiction, but now experts suggest it functions as a calling card for Putin.
Joshua H. Pollack, the editor of the The Nonproliferation Review tweeted that Novichok was a "signature" chemical weapon that the Kremlin likely meant as a "declaration of indifference to the suspicions of others," that amounted to Putin saying: "We don't care what you think."
"After the successful identification of VX by the Malaysian authorities, anyone using a battlefield nerve agent for a high-profile assassination has to know it will be detected," continued Pollack, referencing the murder of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother."Using such an agent just down the road from Porton Down, one of the world's centers of expertise on [chemical weapons], only amplifies the message," concluded Pollack.
Another expert questioned why anybody would use a distinctly Russian chemical agent if they did not want it to be blame Russia was to blame.
"The stunning thing about this attack is why Novichock [sic] when there are other alternatives less provocative and more deniable for Russia. But I suppose that's precisely the point.... Wants everyone to know it's him," Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at MIT with expertise in weapons of mass destruction tweeted.
What is the UK going to do about it?
Russia denies involvement in the attack, even though it has been linked to 15 similar cases of poisoning in the UK alone.
But by officially denying culpability, despite its clear link to Russia, Putin presents the UK with a difficult choice.
NATO experts told Business Insider that war seems unlikely as a result of Skripal's poisoning, as it's not even Russia's worst offense in the context of its illegal annexation of Crimea, support for separatist rebels in Ukraine, and alleged role in the 2014 downing of the MH17 commercial airliner.
The UK can expel Russian diplomats on its soil and impose sanctions if it chooses, but if the experts are correct that Russia's government carried out the attack so brazenly, then the UK's real problem is in Moscow, not an embassy in London.