THE WORD “brazen” hardly does justice to the nerve-agent attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The British investigation made public Wednesday shows that two Russian men traveled to London from Moscow on Aeroflot, carried out the poisoning attempt, threw the leftover substance into a charity pickup bin and caught a flight home. It appears that whoever ordered this operation wanted the killers to be showy about it — to poke Britain in the eye.
In March, they succeeded in badly poisoning the Skripals, who survived and recovered. The discarded nerve agent in a perfume bottle was found by a scavenger and given to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, who died from exposure. The two Russians have been charged in absentia with attempted murder, and identified by British Prime Minister Theresa May as officers of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, most likely traveling under assumed names. They probably won’t be extradited to Britain, just as the killers of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko escaped punishment for fatally poisoning him in 2006 with polonium in his tea in a London hotel cafe. Predictably, Russia is issuing blanket denials.
These are outlaw acts. President Vladimir Putin periodically declares his intention to make Russia great again and pines for the “respect” that he laments was lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But such murderous hit squads operating on foreign soil are an insult to nations that uphold the rule of law and international norms. Mr. Putin, a veteran of the KGB, should be judged by actions, not words. This was state-sponsored thuggery, a swaggering hit job reminiscent of tactics of his old service, which once assisted in killing a Bulgarian dissident on a London street corner with a ricin pellet in the tip of an umbrella.
The nerve agent used, belonging to the Novichok class developed by the Soviet Union late in the Cold War, was characterized as 97 to 98 percent pure by the technical staff of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Britain should respond forcefully. Under Article 9 of the Chemical Weapons Convention — the treaty banning the use of such weapons, to which Russia is a signatory — Britain can lodge claims of noncompliance and eventually trigger a meeting of the nations that have signed and ratified the agreement. London should press ahead on all routes that will expose the Russian behavior and punish it, including the United Nations.
For its part, the Trump administration recently imposed sanctions required by a 1991 law limiting certain exports to state-controlled and -owned firms. A second round of even tougher punishments is envisioned in the law if there is no sign that Russia is in compliance. Judging by Moscow’s stonewalling, preparations for round two should proceed.
After Litvinenko died, Britain did not do enough to make sure it would not happen again. Now it has, and the response must measure up to this bald banditry.