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The Salisbury spy poisonings five years on: Did UK’s response change Putin’s pathway to invading Ukraine?

Five years ago, Yulia and Sergei Skripal were found unconscious on a Salisbury city center bench. Few would have predicted that there was a major diplomatic crisis.

Mr Skripal was a former Russian intelligence officers turned British double agent. He had been assassinated with the deadly nerve agent Novichok. Western officials claim that it leads back to the Kremlin.

Although the pair survived, Dawn Sturgess (a mother of three) was later killed by exposure to nerve agent. Dawn Sturgess had been accidentally exposed to the chemical from a perfume bottle.

This incident caused a diplomatic row between the UK countries. Russia denied any involvement, even though UK intelligence shared details about two Russian men who were allegedly responsible for the attack.


Continue reading: Salisbury still afflicted by the ‘traumas’ of novichok poisonings

Image: Yulia & Sergei Skripal
Image Dawn Sturgess

The famously frosty meeting between UK’s former prime minister, Theresa May and Russian president Vladimir Putin was followed by 23 expulsions and some financial sanctions for assets that “threatened property or life”.

It was the most powerful response to Putin’s Russia at the time.

Salisbury Spy: More

Keir Giles is an expert on security issues related to Russia and says that it was a significant improvement from the “feeble reaction” to the poisoning by another ex-Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Sky News spoke to Mr Giles, a Chatham House senior consulting fellow, about the response to Salisbury. It was as strong as it could have been.

“The UK was able to gather support from the West for a huge solidarity.”

Image: Theresa May meets Vladimir Putin

He stated that one of the key decisions which would have troubled Putin was the naming, shame and involvement of the two alleged assassins Alexander Petrov, and Ruslan Borshirov.

“Putin would likely have hoped that these actions would be undiscovered.” “Suddenly, everyone knows it and there’s no secret to it,” Mr Giles said.

Despite this, novichok continued to be used against Alexei Navalny (Russian opposition leader), who became ill on a flight from Moscow in 2020. He later recovered.

The UK’s response against the Russian aggression was not enough to stop Putin from invading Ukraine in 2022.

“The UK’s response to Putin’s decision would have no impact on his conclusion, and it is independent from Russia’s position with regard to the invasion of Ukraine,” Mr Giles stated.

“It’s a totally different issue in Russia — because Salisbury really is about dealing with an ex-Russian intelligence officer in the UK.”

Image: Alexander Litvinenko

Giles said that the war was not about fulfilling Putin’s long-term ambition to make Russia an imperial power on a global stage.

He said that the reaction to Salisbury would be an impact on Putin’s confidence in attempting similar assassinations elsewhere in the UK.

There are risks associated with these events, and they must be considered in relation to the benefits of a successful attempt.

“The UK’s response in Salisbury would have increased that risk.”

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Theresa May claims that the suspects in the Salisbury poisonings were Russian military intelligence officers.

Professor Tomila Lankina of London School of Economics (LSE) is a professor of international relationships. She has studied disinformation campaigns following Russia’s annexe of Crimea and aggression in Ukraine. She also believes that Putin would have been surprised by the strong reaction of the UK to the Salisbury poisonings.

She said, “If you take a look at the Litvinenko poisoning the responses should be more robust but I recall being impressed by Salisbury’s response.”

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“Probably, Russia was able to execute the poisoning because of its confidence. The UK could have had stronger and more forceful responses to Russia’s past violations.

“But, I recall being impressed by Salisbury’s response. It would have been a surprise to Putin, I believe.

Continue reading:

The Salisbury poisoning – A timeline

Podcast – The poisoning of five years on

Professor Lankina’s book The Estate Origins Of Democracy In Russia examines Russia’s social structures, but he believes that more could be done.

“There was a dependence on Russian money. Businesses who were wealthy and benefited from Russian currency.”

She stated that she believed there was an indirect link between the Litvinenko poisonings and Salisbury poisonings, and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

She said that this path would have been more likely to be broken if the West had reacted stronger to Russia’s annexation in 2014.

Russian-born professor Svetlana Stevenson, who works for London Metropolitan University, believes that the Salisbury poisonings are due in part to Russia’s belief that it can act without serious consequences.

“I don’t believe Russia would want the incident to be discovered.” However, when they did respond, it was a tacit acknowledgment,” stated Prof Stephenson. He has published critical articles on Putin in Novaya Gazeta, a country’s independent newspaper.

“We can do whatever we want,” was part of the message.

“In Russia it would have been just a security situation, Russians simply dealing with someone they consider as a traitor rather than an attack against UK soil.”

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Putin boosts nuclear forces

Professor Stephenson believes that this is why the Salisbury attack would not have had any impact on Putin’s confidence when it comes to confrontation with the West.

She said that she thought he looked depressed when the war began. You sensed something was amiss. But, the war has empowered him, and it seems like this is his new normal.”

“There are some discontents in cities but people in Russia seem to support the war and mobilisation.

“But we can only see what we see, because there is no real opposition to Russia.”


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