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Why did Russia poison one of its ex-spies in Britain?

In 1992, two Russian scientists approached The Post’s Will Englund, then the Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, with news of a secret nerve agent. (Video: Joyce Lee, Will Englund/The Washington Post)

Two weeks ago, Britain was shocked when a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, was poisoned with Novichok, an extremely toxic Russian nerve agent, in Salisbury, England. The military-grade type of nerve agent suggests that the Russian government was linked to the poisoning.

British Prime Minister Theresa May asserts that the Kremlin is “highly likely” to have been behind the poisoning. If so, Russian President Vladimir Putin almost certainly sanctioned the attack directly. But why would the Kremlin commit such a dangerous crime right before Russia’s presidential election, while its relationships with Western countries are collapsing?

Several theories have emerged to explain Moscow’s actions. Here’s a summary of available theories, which also involves my research on Russian and Soviet disinformation techniques.

Did Russian security services just get sloppy?

Russian security may have used Novichok in the past without being discovered. Skripal and his daughter were found unresponsive but alive on a park bench. But Novichok is an unusual chemical, not something for which a morgue would ordinarily test. Had only Skripal been targeted, and had he received a higher dose, he could be dead — as if from a sudden heart attack or other natural causes. 

Such sloppiness would be consistent with the Russian security services’ trend of declining professionalism and lack of discipline. We’ve seen such patterns recently in the Olympic scandal, which revealed that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, KGB) was secretly swapping out illegally drugged athletes’ urine samples for cleaner ones, and in the effort to influence the U.S. presidential election. Vil Mirzayanov, who helped develop Novichok, believes that Moscow was confident the chemical would not be discovered.

In this scenario, Russian security forces are simply eliminating former agents. While eliminating defectors was standard in the old KGB playbook, the practice fell out of favor in the 1990s, but it has returned under Putin’s rule. Skripal’s poisoning obviously parallels the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko with another a rare and highly toxic poison, polonium-210. A byproduct of nuclear fission, polonium-210, like Novichok, can be produced only by a state, not by individuals.

Litvinenko’s assassination was one of many. A 2017 BuzzFeed investigation found 14 suspicious deaths on British soil that were allegedly linked to Russia’s security services. Among the victims were Russian whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny, who helped Western prosecutors uncover money laundering schemes used by corrupt Russian officials, and Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who spent the last years of his life in exile and in opposition to the Kremlin. Interestingly, last week, Berezovsky’s friend Nikolai Glushkov was allegedly murdered in London.

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Or did Russia want to make an international point?

Some observers believe that Novichok is too powerful a weapon to attempt to use discreetly. One former Russian special services employee argues that it’s “too dirty” to be used casually, and that given the high risks of collateral casualties, the goal must have been to attract attention. Indeed, 21 people received medical treatment following the Skripal poisoning, according to British police.

Why might the Kremlin have wanted to attract attention to its attack on Skripal and his daughter?

Internationally, the Kremlin might have intended to exert pressure on the West. The Kremlin’s foreign policy tool kit includes a technique called “reflexive control,” designed to cause a stronger adversary voluntarily to choose the actions Russia prefers by shaping that adversary’s perceptions of the situation. Such techniques are also intended to test a target country’s response, to assess what might be expected after future provocations. Russia may be trying to promote an image of itself as a state willing to violate international norms and rules if its interests are not met. The Kremlin has used such tactics in the past, notably by sending Russian jets to violate Ukrainian airspace after Russia annexed Crimea.

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Interestingly, Skripal’s poisoning came just several days after Putin’s bellicose Federal Assembly address, in which he threatened the West with a new generation of nuclear weapons. Since Skripal allegedly continued collaborating with Western intelligence after he arrived in Britain in 2010, a scandalous poisoning could have been a revenge attack for handing over Russian secrets — and meant to teach Britain a lesson about collaborating with Russia’s defectors.

Arriving at a Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, March 19, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Russian denials are "increasingly absurd." (Video: Reuters)

Or is Putin putting other Russians on notice that defecting will have consequences? 

Skripal’s poisoning may also be designed to achieve domestic policy goals. Some commentators suggested that the poisoning might have been intended to help Putin rally the country around the flag and win the March 18 presidential election. However, Putin, who didn’t face any serious competition in Sunday’s election, is unlikely to require this backing. Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy steps, such as its 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 intervention in Ukraine, did not appear to be timed to relate to Russia’s electoral cycles.

Rather, Putin may be signaling other possible defectors among Russia’s former operatives and elites. London has been attracting an increasing number of Russian businessmen and officials fleeing for a better life away from the more and more repressive Russian state. Russian elites have been increasingly unhappy with the Kremlin’s bellicose policies and the corresponding multiplying Western sanctions. Putin might feel he has to remind them that defecting has serious consequences.

In December 2017, Boris Titov, one of the pro-Kremlin presidential candidates, campaigned in London to try to persuade exiled Russian oligarchs to return to Russia, apparently on the Kremlin’s instructions. Last week, one of Russia’s state TV anchors directly warned the prospective Russian “traitors” in England of what they might expect.

The Kremlin might be signaling its ruthlessness to the Russian opposition as well. High-level Russian businessmen such as Evgeny Chichvarkin and Vladimir Ashurkov, who are known for their opposition to the Kremlin and who currently reside in London, have sometimes noticed that they were being shadowed by Russian security. Skripal contacted the British police some time before the poisoning and expressed concerns about his safety. Andrei Sidelnikov, an opposition activist currently living in London, says Russian security service operatives periodically follow him around the city.

“I am wondering, who of us is going to be next?” Sidelnikov recently told me.

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In the meantime, pro-Kremlin media outlets have proposed a series of contradictory explanations for the poisoning, apparently designed to obfuscate the reality and confuse the wider audience, both at home and abroad.

With Putin returning to office after this election, Moscow appears poised to continue disrupting world politics for years to come.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Vil Mirzayanov created Novichok, as opposed to helped develop it. We regret the error. 

Maria Snegovaya is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.