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  • Writer's pictureAnna Hardy

Sergei Skripal - who is he, what happened and why does it matter?

Updated: Mar 13, 2018

Who is he?

Sergei Viktorovich Skripal, 66, is a former Russian spy who was deliberately poisoned, alongside his daughter, Yulia, 33, in Salisbury on Sunday 4th March 2018.

Sergei Skripal was convicted of treason in Russia in 2006. The Russian secret service accused him of passing on the identities of Russian secret agents in exchange for money, but in 2010, he was pardoned and gained refuge in the UK as part of a spy swap where ten Russian spies (who had had their identities exposed in the US) were swapped for four Russian spies (including Skripal) who had been jailed in Russia for illegal contacts with the West.

What happened?

On Sunday, Skripal was poisoned with a nerve agent (a class of chemicals which disrupt the mechanisms that our nerves use to transfer messages to our organs, thus having fatal consequences - the two are currently being held in intensive care). However, specifics from Skripal's case are still being awaited, and as of yet, the specific nerve agent was used to poison him and his daughter has not been released by the police.

Britain's response

The suspicion in Downing Street is that the Kremlin (the "White House" of Russia) has carried out a state-sponsored assassination attempt on British soil.

Although this may seem like an outlandish claim, Skripal's case is incredibly similar to past incidents in which Russian dissidents died suspiciously in the UK. Notably, the case echoes the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (a Russian ex-spy who had also worked for the British intelligence services, but was poisoned in a London hotel - Russia denied responsibility, even after an inquiry linked the act to Putin) in London in 2006. A Buzzfeed report from last year also claims that US intelligence officials link at least 14 deaths in the UK to the Russian state or mafia, with some of those deaths including names such as Scot Young, Georgi Markov, Boris Berezovsky and more.

Although nothing has yet been proven in a court of law, if these suspicions are realised then the question becomes, how will the British government respond?

The current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has commented that "Russia is [...] in many respects now a malign and disruptive force" and if Skripal is found to have been the target of the Russian state then there will have to be some "difficult conversations". However, Theresa May herself was criticised for being insufficiently "robust" over the poisoning of Litvinenko (she was the Home Secretary when a public inquiry was later launched into his death) as May personally intervened to delay the inquiry into Litvinenko's death in order to protect "international relations" with Russia. It is therefore recommended that Johnson's statements are taken with a (big) pinch of salt.

The Problem/Why this matters

Russia is the world's largest nation geographically, but is also now deemed as one of the world's superpowers (it has a lot of power). Arguably it is therefore unrealistic to expect Britain to impose harsh sanctions on it, even if Russia's involvement in this case is proved, as some argue that instead of achieving anything productive, this will only anger Russia and increase tensions between the East and the West.

According to another Buzzfeed report, "the core reason British authorities have turned a blind eye [in the past] is fear", arguing that ministers are not prepared to take the necessary steps to condemn Russian crime "because the Kremlin could inflict massive harm on Britain by unleashing cyberattacks, destabilising the economy, or mobilising elements of Britain's large Russian population to cause disruption" - Russia's involvement in the US 2016 Presidential election is still being contended today.

However, regardless of who committed it, the act itself of lethally poisoning an innocent man on foreign soil is not only immoral, but a complete violation of the Rule of Law.

Therefore, if the Russian government are responsible for this, it is important that they are reprimanded, as countries cannot think that arbitrary violation of human rights is acceptable or justified. Nor can Britain claim to be a democratic society, where the Rule of Law and Human Rights are respected, if inhabitants are at risk of random poisonings at any given time.


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