The Russian press opened today with comments in the aftermath of the Skripal’ assault and Britain’s reaction. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, has announced the expulsion of a mere 23 Russian diplomats from London on the grounds that they are secret intelligence officers. This is as nothing compared with the expulsion of 90 back in the days of the Heath government, the inspiration of George Walden at the FCO, which broke Soviet intelligence activity in Britain for a decade or more.
May’s retaliation aroused a combination of indignation and contempt from Moscow – Rossiiskaya gazeta snidely referred to it in a leader as a “paralytic nerve” reaction. A leader from the more liberal press made direct reference to a “dirty bomb” threatening the lives of Skripal’ and his daughter in Britain and went some distance to imply Russian culpability – V. Shiryaev, “Gryaznaya bomba. Na territorii NATO vpervye primeneno oruzhie massovogo porazheniya”, Novaya gazeta, 14 March 2018 .
This article draws a parallel with the horrendous record of the House of Borgia in early modern Italy in the almost casual poisoning of hated rivals. It suggests that Putin must be furious at the timing of this “catastrophe” just before his re-election on 18 March and at a moment of high international tension.
This would seem to indicate that the decision to assassinate Skipal’ was taken at another level; likely as not at the top of the FSB. Has carte blanche been given to dispose of Russian traitors living abroad at time and place of its own choosing? The assumption being that such decisions could be taken without regard to the international situation even though their impact could prove politically damaging and counter-productive to Russian interests overall.
Yet the law passed by the Russian parliament in June-July 2006 provides for extra-judicial killing only on the explicit assent of the President. So, if this attempted assassination comes under that law, how is this compatible with the interpretation put forward by Novaya gazeta? Or are we now to assume that the Kremlin lost full supervisory control over the security apparatus at its command?