On November first, 2006, ex-Russian FSB agent and naturalized British citizen Alexander Litvinenko entered a London hospital gravely ill. Twenty three days later he was dead of deliberate radiation poisoning from polonium-210, a penultimate daughter of uranium-238.
On March twelfth, 2018, ex-Russian GRU agent and resident of Salisbury, England, Sergei Skripal was hospitalized with his daughter Yulia, both exhibiting grave symptoms that turned out to be consequent of poisoning by a nerve agent known as “novichok.” While both survived, a perfume bottle containing the deadly binary nerve agent was later discovered by the boyfriend of Dawn Sturgess, a British citizen, and given to her as a gift. Ms. Sturgess, who was, as it happens, a neighbor of mine, later regrettably died.
What these two episodes have in common is they were both ordered by Vladimir Putin. What’s more, in each case Putin left a calling card in the form of highly sophisticated weapons, weapons redolent of deliberate state-sponsored poisoning. Though in both cases Putin denied authorship of the murders, the choice of weapons left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was behind the attacks.
There was no sane reason for anyone to use polonium-210 in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, nor was there any rational reason to use novichok in the attack on Sergei Skripal, when an ordinary gun or a knife would have served as well. Those bizarre forms of weapons were chosen for one reason only: to point the finger of guilt inescapably back at the perpetrator. In other words, Vladimir Putin was bragging.
At this week’s G20 conference in Japan, at what is to be her last state occasion, British Prime Minister Theresa May has made it clear to Putin that Russia must end its “irresponsible and destabilizing activity” in Britain. Describing the Salisbury poisoning as a “truly despicable act,” she said the two suspects who carried out the attack – believed to be Russian military intelligence officers – must be “brought to justice.” Not wishing to lose bragging rights, instead of denying Mrs. May’s charge, Putin dismissed the Skripal poisoning as a “fuss about spies” and, while also apparently channeling Kellyanne Conway, changed the subject by attacking liberalism in western democracies.
Earlier, when Donald Trump was asked by a reporter if he was going to tell the president of Russia not to interfere in the 2020 election, Trump turned it into a joke, “telling Putin off” in a pseudo-serious, mocking voice. In shaking her fist in the face of Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, Theresa May demonstrated that she has something Donald Trump will never have, the courage to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump remains a bully who behaves exactly the way other bullies do when they meet someone bolder and more powerful, like a snivelling toady, a fawning, impotent sidekick, a nothing, a coward and a fool. Shame on Trump. Brava, Mrs. May.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.