It’s too soon to conclude whether former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are Moscow’s latest overseas victims. UK authorities have just begun their investigation into the poisoning. Regardless, the West must confront President Vladimir Putin on how Russia has used murder as a tool of statecraft.
The Skripal incident echoes the infamous 2006 poisoning with radioactive polonium of another former spy in Britain, Alexander Litvinenko. Russian state assassinations are allegedly not limited to Britain either.
Russia’s campaign against Putin’s foes is a particular problem for the UK. Last year, a Buzzfeed investigation revealed that US intelligence agencies identified 14 murders in the UK linked to Russia. The victims include a former financier turned whistleblower, Alexander Perepilichnyy, and a medical doctor, Matthew Puncher, who helped authorities investigate the murder of Litvinenko.
In all of these cases, Buzzfeed reported, US spy agencies provided their British counterparts with intelligence that implicated Russian security services or the Russian mafia. But the official investigations never went there. Puncher, who was found dead after multiple stab wounds, was ruled a suicide.
This fits a larger pattern, according to David Satter, an American historian and journalist who has meticulously documented the Russian government’s role in the 1999 apartment bombings that helped bring Putin to power a year later. “We historically have ignored Russia’s hand in these things,” he told me.
The Skripal incident could be a turning point. Already, UK politicians are pointing the finger at Moscow. Conservative Member of Parliament Nick Boles this week captured an element of British opinion when he tweeted: “I do not see how we can maintain diplomatic relations with a country that tries to murder people on British soil and puts the lives of British citizens at risk.” The time had come to “turn tough talk into action.”
As a general rule, the West’s response to Russia should be focused on its strength, the power to exclude and isolate. This starts with naming and shaming. Thus it’s vital for British authorities to investigate the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter with aggression and haste.
Now would also be a good time to reopen the closed cases reported last year by Buzzfeed. As Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary for defense under President Barack Obama, put it: “We need to be calling them out publicly, mincing no words and clearly stating the Kremlin is responsible if that’s where the facts lead.”
Along these lines, the US intelligence agencies should begin thinking through declassifying some of the intelligence it has that links Putin to these killings.
Naming and shaming Russian killers gnaws at a key objective of Russian foreign policy: to be recognized and respected as a great power. Disclosing evidence of Russian criminality exposes it as a sponsor of terror, in league with the worst regimes. More important, it makes Russia more toxic for banks and corporations.
The second line of action for the West should be an effort to reform or replace Interpol. Russia has proved to be a serial abuser of the Interpol system, using it to harass its political opponents — like issuing red notices for William Browder, who made it his life’s work to sanction Russian nationals responsible for the death of his former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky.
This gets to the final phase. The UK’s Theresa May and other European leaders must inform Putin directly of the consequences his regime will face if it continues its assassinations on European soil. This should include designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
Already Russia provides significant military support to another state sponsor of terror, Syria. The case for designation is stronger than the Russians may realize.
The final lever against Russia would be removing Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, which allows banks worldwide to share information. This step would throw the Russian economy into a tailspin but also deprive the US and its allies of a key tool for monitoring Russian finances. That said, it’s precisely the kind of economic disruption that may deter Putin.
Russia has to date interpreted British wishful thinking and willful blindness as an invitation for more mayhem. It’s time to rescind this invitation and let Putin know that if his regime continues to sponsor terror, it will be treated like a terrorist.
© 2018, Bloomberg View