Listen: Graeme Gill in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
Double agents, nerve gas, assassination plots, tit for tat expulsions of diplomats, “undeclared intelligence officers”; are we living in a John le Carré spy novel or is this the start of a new Cold War?
The attempt to assassinate a former Russian double agent living quietly in the small cathedral city of Salisbury in the UK has all the elements of the classic spy narrative.
However on this occasion, fiction became a grim reality with the use of a deadly nerve agent on British soil in the shocking March 4 attack.
The incident is the first use of a chemical weapon on British soil since the Second World War.
Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, and police detective sergeant Nick Bailey, were all exposed to a Soviet era nerve agent.
Identified as novichok, (“newcomer” in Russian) the nerve agent is incredibly dangerous.
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The use of this banned chemical weapon on civilians in a populated area on civilians is still being investigated.
The Skripals are still unconscious in hospital and are likely to have suffered devastating and irreparable damage to all their bodily systems.
The police officer is thought to have been contaminated when he was a first responder assisting Sergi and Yulia Skripal.
Clearly the dose he was exposed to was minimal as he has been discharged from hospital.
The incident is reverberating around the world with country after country supporting Britain in outrage.
The Russians are not taking responsibility but the international community is certain they are to blame.
More than 20 countries have given notice they will expel over 100 Russian diplomats.
In diplomatic parlance the expelled diplomats are described as “undeclared intelligence agents”.
Naturally enough Russia says they have no spies working under the cover of being diplomats at their foreign embassies.
But the western world is having none of it.
They are all pointing the finger at the recently re-elected Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
The Kremlin, of course, says it is all part of a world-wide “anti-russia” conspiracy.
Australia is part of the global action against Moscow and this week ordered two Russian diplomats to leave Australia within seven days.
Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull said “It reflects a pattern of recklessness and aggression by the Russian government, including the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, cyber attacks and efforts to manipulate western nations’ elections.
“There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the credibility of the Brexit referendum, last year’s presidential elections in France, and Catalonia’s referendum in Spain, and in the United States, one of the oldest and formidable democracies in the world, debate is raging about whether Russian intelligence operations may have tipped the presidential election.” Turnbull said.
The United States is also expelling diplomats and placing sanctions on Russia in solidarity with the UK and in response to reported Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election and cyber attacks on the US electricity grid.
In the normal way these things unfold, Russia will of course retaliate, tit for tat, by expelling diplomats from the various countries supporting the British stand.
In a tweet welcoming the actions taken by the US and EU nations, British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said they amounted to “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever”.
The British response has been direct and robust, but short of going all the way to an actual war, there is not really a lot the Brits can do.
Professor Graeme Gill from the University of Sydney is an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and the author of several books about Russia.