Ten years after Alexander Litvenenko lay dying in a London hospital, another alleged Russian assassination on British soil may have been solved. Two Russian nationals have been named and charged in the attempted murder of Yulia and Sergei Skripal, who were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury earlier this year. Prime Minister Theresa May says the orders were not 'a rogue operation' but almost certainly came from high up in the Russian state.
"As we made clear in March, only Russia had the technical means, operational experience and motive to carry out the attack," said May in the House of Commons on Wednesday. "The [Russian Main Intelligence Directorate] is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state."
Later today The UK will face Russia when they brief the UN Security Council — a potentially fraught standoff. Russia has denied involvement in the poisoning, accused the British government of lies and demanded investigative proof be submitted directly to Russian authorities.
"Our position has not changed in any way on this question and we haven't received any new details," said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. "Because as you know, the British government has refused to invite us to cooperate on this incident — that's the first thing. And the second thing is that yes, we do hope to hear at least something reasonable on this topic."
An EU arrest warrant has been issued, but it's highly unlikely the men will ever set foot in an EU country ever again. Russia often refuses to extradite its nationals to other countries to face justice. British authorities tried to prosecute Andrei Lugovoi, the man accused of poisoning former Russian spy Alexander Litvenenko, for around a decade. The Kremlin refused to hand him over, and he eventually went on to become a politician and receive a state honour.
With direct prosecution of the assassins unlikely to happen, the UK will be pushing the EU to impose fresh sanctions on Russia — but it's no sure bet the sanctions will materialise, as Russia is an important trading partner. Security journalist Duncan Gardham told Good Morning Europe on Thursday that diplamatic efforts will be made anyways.
"The diplomatic coming and going is obviously part of this game," he said. "I call it a game, but it's proved deadly in at least one of these cases. But it is a game of global influence, and the UK is trying to say to people look, we have individuals who work with us inside Russia, we help provide information and insight into what goes on in Russia, and we want the rest of the West to back us, because we have proof that they are trying to attack those sources."
Justice might not be within reach, either diplomatically or judicially. But there still is a reason to call out the culprits, according to Gardham.
"There's a number of different purposes it serves for different bits of the British security apparatus, if you like," he said.
"For Scotland Yard, the point is as much as anything to prove that they can hunt down these individuals and work out who they are, identify them and publicly name them. For the prosecutors, they want to make the point that, they want to register that these individuals are now wanted, and in some kind of way they're saying look, we don't think that President Putin will be there forever, and when he goes, we want these guys. And for the security apparatus itself, it wants to send a global message saying that we know who these individuals are, and they are Russian and they have been sent by the state."