Whether the Skripal poisoning can be conclusively pinned on Moscow is beside the point.
By Eli Lake
It’s too soon to conclude whether the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are Moscow’s latest overseas victims. U.K. authorities have just begun their investigation into the poisoning, while health officials treat nearly 20 others “in connection” with the incident. Regardless, the West must confront President Vladimir Putin on how Russia has used murder as a tool of statecraft.
Consider the context. The Skripal incident echoes the infamous 2006 poisoning with radioactive polonium of another former spy living in Britain, Alexander Litvinenko. Russian state assassinations are allegedly not limited to Britain either. In 2009, Dubai authorities said the killing of a former Chechen general, Sulim B. Yamadayev, was planned by a member of Russian parliament. This says nothing of the fate of Putin’s opponents inside Russia.
Russia’s campaign against Putin’s foes is a particular problem for the U.K., where many of the president’s allies prefer to hide their money and where expatriates once believed they could live without fear of Russian assassins. (Skripal had actually been sent to the U.K. in a prisoner exchange involving the infamous Russian spy Anna Chapman, which by Cold War rules would have made his life secure.)
Last year, a Buzzfeed investigation revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies have identified 14 murders in the U.K. linked to Russia. The victims include a former financier turned whistleblower, Alexander Perepilichnyy, and a medical doctor, Matthew Puncher, who helped authorities investigate the murder of Litvinenko.
In all of these cases, Buzzfeed reported, U.S. spy agencies provided their British counterparts with intelligence that implicated Russian security services or the Russian mafia. But the official investigations never went there. Puncher, who was found dead after multiple stab wounds, was ruled a suicide.
Even in the case of Litvinenko, the public reckoning was slow-rolled and watered down. The British inquiry into his killing took 10 years. In the end, Interpol notices were issued against two FSB agents, but not the former head of that agency, Nikolai Patrushev, who was implicated in the final report by its lead judge, Sir Robert Owen. And while Owen concluded the Litvinenko murder was “probably” ordered by Putin, he could not go further, in part because some of the evidence he had seen remains classified.
This fits a larger pattern, according to David Satter, an American historian and journalist who has meticulously documented the Russian government’s role in the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power a year later. “We historically have ignored Russia’s hand in these things,” he told me. “We have always accepted their absurd explanations. We tacitly accept this by not doing anything.”
The good news is that the Skripal incident could be a turning point. Already, politicians in the U.K. are pointing the finger at Moscow. Conservative Member of Parliament Nick Boles this week captured an element of British opinion when he tweeted: “I do not see how we can maintain diplomatic relations with a country that tries to murder people on British soil and puts the lives of British citizens at risk.” He added that the time had come to “turn tough talk into action.”
This last part is harder than it sounds. The U.S. and the U.K. cannot and should not respond to Russian state-sponsored murder in kind. Just as it would make little sense for the U.S. to meddle in this month’s heavily rigged Russian presidential election as payback for the Russian hacks and trolls in 2016, it would be a mistake for Western spy services to get back into the practice of political assassinations. As a general rule, the West’s response to Russia should be focused on its strength, the power to exclude and isolate.
This starts with naming and shaming. Thus it’s vital for British authorities to investigate the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter with aggression and haste. It would be unacceptable to wait another decade to inform the public about what happened.
Now would also be a good time to re-open the closed cases reported last year by Buzzfeed. As Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary for defense under President Barack Obama, put it to me this week: “We need to be calling them out publicly, mincing no words and clearly stating the Kremlin is responsible if that’s where the facts lead.”
Along these lines, the U.S. intelligence agencies should begin thinking through declassifying some of the intelligence it has that links Putin to these overseas killings. John Sipher, a former career CIA officer who specialized in Russia, would not go into details with me, but he said American evidence in this respect is damning. “You can assume that the U.S. intelligence community has accumulated an amazing amount of stolen information that would be very embarrassing to the Russian leadership over the years,” he said.
And, yes, it’s true that President Donald Trump has slobbered over Putin. At the same time, his government has been surprisingly tough with Moscow. If the Trump administration is willing to sell anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, it’s not unreasonable to think it would publicize information on Russian assassinations.
Naming and shaming Russian killers is important for two reasons. It gnaws away at a key objective of Russian foreign policy, which is to be recognized and respected as a great power. Disclosing intercepts, documents and other evidence of Russian criminality exposes it as a sponsor of terror, in league with the worst regimes on the planet. More important, it makes Russia more toxic for banks and corporations. Putin’s regime will always have its gas and oil, but those resources will carry reputational risk for future financial partners.
The second line of action for the West should be an effort to either reform or replace Interpol, which has coordinated international police efforts since 1923. Russia has proved to be a serial abuser of the Interpol system, which is supposed to share information on wanted criminals across jurisdictions for the purposes of extradition. Russia uses Interpol to harass its political opponents, like issuing red notices for William Browder, the hedge-fund manager who has made it his life’s work to sanction those Russian nationals responsible for the death of his former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.
This requires two steps. First, Western countries should make it clear to Interpol that it either creates a separate tier for Russia and other countries who abuse the system, where they must provide a higher burden of proof, or it should form a parallel agency to Interpol for civilized nations. Second, it should be issuing more international arrest warrants for Russian officials implicated in assassinations abroad. Ideally, Russia would find itself in the same position as outlaw states like Iran. To this day, Argentina’s investigation into Tehran’s role in the 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish cultural centerin Buenos Aires has dogged senior Iranian ministers.
And this gets to the final phase. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and other European leaders must inform Putin directly of the consequences his regime will face if it continues its assassinations on European soil. This should include designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.
That’s not unprecedented. Remember that North Korea was re-added to the U.S. list in part because its agents used nerve agent to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia. Already Russia provides significant military support to another state sponsor of terror, Syria. The case for designation is stronger than the Russians may realize.
The final lever against Russia would be removing Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, which allows banks worldwide to share information on transactions. This step would be a double-edged sword: It would throw the Russian economy into a tailspin, but it would also deprive the U.S. and its allies of a key tool for monitoring Russian state finances. That said, it’s precisely the kind of economic disruption that may deter Putin going forward.
All of this carries risk. May herself will be unlikely to crack down on Russian oligarchs who have used London as a safe haven for their ill-gotten cash, particularly at a moment when her government must negotiate the country’s exit from the European Union.
That said, Russia has to date interpreted British wishful thinking and willful blindness as an invitation for more mayhem. It’s time to rescind this invitation and let Putin know that if his regime continues to sponsor terror, it will be treated like a terrorist.