Earlier this month, Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England. The two had been poisoned with a nerve agent called Novichok, developed by Kremlin scientists several decades ago. They remain in critical condition.
Skripal is Russian. He was arrested in 2006 for passing state secrets to Britain's MI6 and released in 2010 as part of a prisoner swap. He's been living in Britain ever since.
After an investigation, British officials accused the Kremlin of organizing the March 4 attack, which is thought to have exposed as many as 130 people to the nerve agent. At least 50 were treated in a hospital. In a statement to the House of Commons on March 12, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russian officials organized the poisoning.
In response, Britain has called for international consequences.
On Monday, the world got a better sense of what those consequences might look like. In a coordinated announcement, several European countries booted Russian diplomats from their soil. Around the same time, President Trump announced that he would do the same. He expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the United States and said he plans to shutter Russia's consulate in Seattle.
“Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Russia cannot break international rules with impunity.”
The Kremlin, however, has maintained its innocence, saying at one point that Britain's accusations “border on banditry.” Russia's ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, told reporters that “the Russian state had nothing against” Skripal. Russian leaders have also pointed fingers elsewhere, suggesting that the United States or Britain is trying to frame the Kremlin in a bid to inflame Russiaphobia.
Experts say Russian Twitter trolls are working overtime to amplify this message, alleging that potentially fake accounts linked to a bot factory in St. Petersburg have been sharing social media posts that cast doubt on the British investigation. In one instance, according to experts, trolls circulated a poll that asked whether May had provided the public with enough information.
Ben Nimmo, a senior research fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that after the attack, he saw an “attempt by pro-Russian users to influence the online poll, and thus to create the appearance of greater hostility towards the U.K. government than U.K. users themselves showed.”
By some measures, the campaign is working, at least in Russia. In a phone survey conducted by state-run pollster Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 82 percent of those surveyed had heard about the poisoning of the Skripals. Of that group, just 5 percent said they believed that Britain's allegations against the Kremlin were credible.
About 81 percent agreed that Britain is “ready to use any chance to deepen the crisis in relations with Russia.” Additionally, 59 percent said they would support Moscow's participation in an international investigation of the poisoning.
In response to the latest diplomatic dust-up, the Russian Embassy in Washington tweeted a cheeky poll Monday asking which U.S. consulate Russia should shutter.
As of about 1:30 p.m., 45 percent of the 13,000 voters had opted for the closure of the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg. Thirty-five percent chose Yekaterinburg.