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UK government handles Russian spy illness with care

media A police officer stands outside a restaurant closed after former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, Britain, 6 March 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s government activated emergency measures on Wednesday to keep in regular contact with police investigating the mysterious illness of a Russian former spy and his daughter, while handling suspicion of Moscow's involvement with caution.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said police would reveal more information later about a substance that put former Russian army intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition in the city of Salisbury on Sunday.

Initially handled by local police, the investigation was turned over to counter-terror investigators on Tuesday evening when information surfaced of Skripal’s past, but that alone does not mean any particular terrorist threat or motive is suspected.

“There have been lots of allegations levelled at the Russians, simply because he was a Russian spy, but it doesn’t have any bearing on why counter-terror police are currently dealing with it,” explains former counter-terrorism investigator David Videcette.

“Counter-terror police have a national network and a bigger remit, access to more resources and access to greater intelligence, and perhaps more specialist skills around what might have happened to these two people.”

Parallels with Litvinenko case

The UK has also activated its emergency Cobra committee, in which police give top cabinet ministers regular updates on their investigation.

Hovering in the background is the memory of the death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, which the UK suspects was a radiation poisoning approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Skripal was not the outspoken Putin critic Litvinenko was, having kept a low profile since arriving in the UK as part of a prisoner swap in 2010, yet there seems little point in ignoring the parallels.

“There are obvious similarities between this case and what happened in 2006 with Litvinenko,” says David Videcette.

“So, the Cobra committee are preparing themselves in the possibility that this is another case of Russian foul play. But it’s really important to point out there is obviously no evidence at the time to prove that is the case.”

Russia raps Johnson

Rudd called for all to “keep a cool head” over the incident and let investigators do their work.

That was perhaps a rebuke to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who all but pointed the finger at Russia on Tuesday, warning of retaliation at the sign of any state involvement.

The Kremlin responded to Johnson, claiming the Skripal incident was “straight away used to boost an anti-Russian campaign in the media” ahead of the country’s presidential election on 18 March.

While misfortune befalling a convicted traitor living abroad to change the result of an election that Putin is believed certain to win, the incident is more certain to have in impact in international relations.

“It raises the temperature and in general it starts to make people receptive as to what messaging may come from the Kremlin,” says Bruce Jones, an expert on Russian intelligence writing for Jane’s Defence News in London.

At the same time, the reactions underline the dilemma the UK government faces in responding to what has befallen Skripal.

“It kind of boxes the United Kingdom into a corner, in that some action would be required, but any action is counterproductive, because it would make very little difference to Russia,” Jones says.

“Furthermore, it would give the Russians an adequate cause to claim they are being victimised for no reason.”

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