Have you been to Salisbury? Have you visited the cathedral, whose 123-metre spire the two men identified as Russian military intelligence assassins claimed was the reason for their visit on two consecutive days in March this year?
Have you walked the streets where Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrovcarried a bottle of military-grade nerve agent in search of their victim, Sergei Skripal?
More to the point, has the former head of the Foreign Office, Boris Johnson, or his successor, Jeremy Hunt? I ask because to have spent any time in Salisbury, as I did for a number of years earlier this decade, is to be chilled by every new unlikely twist in this still unfolding story. To know the key locations intimately. To have walked hundreds of times past the benchwhere Sergei and Yulia Skripal collapsed and were found, unconscious, frothing at the mouth; the Mill pub where they’d just been for a drink; the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, the last place visited by Dawn Sturgess before she died.
This is where for nearly a century the British army has prepared for war. It’s where it practised its battle skills for the First and Second World Wars, for the Falklands and the Gulf and Afghanistan – though there have been garrisons here for much, much longer. Drive across the strange, otherworldly expanses of Salisbury Plain and it’s not Stonehenge that will surprise you, it’s the tanks, the camouflage nets, the live ammo rounds. The Salisbury Plain training area, the biggest military base in Britain, is the cornerstone of our national security.
A base that recently got even bigger: in 2015, the Ministry of Defence decided to relocate thousands of troops stationed in Germany back to Britain by 2020. Because – klaxon – the threat to Britain was no longer judged to come from the east. Thousands of homes and two primary schools were built to accommodate them in Tidworth, Larkhill and Bulford camps. And the officers? The generals, colonels, brigadiers? They’re here, too. In the surrounding villages, in Salisbury itself, in the streets that Boshirov and Petrov walked down. These are their streets. This is where Dawn Sturgess died. On their watch. On Boris Johnson’s watch.
But was he? Watching, that is. Because increasingly, it seems like the government, the intelligence services and the army have been asleep at the wheel; still are asleep at the wheel. What happened last week didn’t involve tanks or live rounds. You could enact drills for months on Salisbury Plain and it wouldn’t prepare you for a scenario in which two serving Russian military intelligence officers entered your country undetected and carried out an attack with a proscribed chemical weapon in broad daylight just miles from Porton Down, your own secretive chemical weapons laboratory.
These intelligence officers, we now know, worked for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency that, in July, special counsel Robert Muelleridentified as responsible for hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee, an act that went on to play a defining role in the US election. These same intelligence officers last week went on air and took what can only be described as the piss. Because having been identified by the British authorities after months of painstaking detective work, Boshirov and Petrov coolly spun a preposterous tale about their burning desire to see a cathedral, a cathedral that in two days they never managed to visit because there was “too much slush” on the ground.
Russia is trolling us. This is warfare disguised as political theatre. Information warfare. And we’re too flatfooted to recognise it, let alone have a coherent strategy of how to counter it. Last week’s triumphant breakthrough is this week’s humiliation.
Yesterday, the Times claimed MI6 believed that Michael Foot had been targeted by, and took money from, the Soviets. The merits of the claim aside, there is nothing new in Soviet/Russian ambitions to disrupt and corrupt our domestic politics, only in the tools at their disposal. Tools that we see being employed daily against British MPs and journalists and news organisations. The Russian embassy’s Twitter account has broken all received ideas about diplomacy and relentlessly trolls, lampoons and ridicules any person or institution daring to criticise Russian foreign policy, or report on it, including the Observer. It’s the digital equivalent of seeing officers in hazmat suits and gasmasks outside the house in which you used to live. It’s not a joke. And we shouldn’t treat it as one. It’s an attack on the institutions that safeguard our democratic freedoms.
The theatre of war has changed. We haven’t kept up. And the government is in denial. Or paralysis. Or both. In November last year, Boris Johnson told a parliamentary committee that there was “not a sausage” of evidence of Russian interference in UK elections. At the time, this statement seemed absurd. Now it seems… terrifying. Because if Johnson was telling the truth – never a given – then we should be truly alarmed. If the foreign secretary really had seen no evidence, was it because his department and those under his control, including MI6, weren’t looking? Because they were directed not to look? Or what?
Why hasn’t the government responded to the clear call made in July by Damian Collins, the chair of the parliamentary fake news inquiry. His committee’s interim report demanded that the government reveal what the security services are doing. Its response? Nothing. Silence. Not a sausage.
And it’s this that should alarm us more. Because last week, the New York Times published an article that delved into the reasons why the Kremlin targeted Sergei Skripal and why now. But it missed one possible answer: because it could. Just as it could inflict a devastating attack on the US election. And if you can carry out a chemical warfare attack undetected under the noses of Britain’s highest military ranking officers, what else can you do?
• Carole Cadwalladr is a reporter and feature writer for the Observer