British Prime Minister Theresa May Spies Strangers

One of the quaint traditions in the British House of Commons was a device for the chamber to go into private session.  A member says, "I spy strangers," a phrase used until recently to refer to anyone present in the chamber who is neither a member of Parliament nor a parliamentary official.  The speaker then immediately puts forth the motion "that strangers do now withdraw."  If carried, the public galleries are cleared.  British prime minister Theresa May is now using a variant of this formula in her forceful decision on March 13 and 14, among other resolutions, to order 23 Russians supposedly working as diplomats at the embassy but identified as undeclared intelligence officers out of the country, thus degrading Russian intelligence capability in the United Kingdom for some time.

This is one of the retaliatory measures resulting from the assassinations and attempts by assassins, reputed to be Russian agents, responsible for killing Russian émigrés, former Russian agents, now living Britain.  May has been decisive about the attempt on the lives of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who on March 4, 2018 were found in a comatose state on a bench in Salisbury, where the father was apparently living a quiet life.  Skripal had worked for Russian military intelligence and been a colonel in the GRU.  He was recruited by British intelligence, knowing he "had a nose for money," and worked with MI6 under the code name "Forthwith."  He informed about GRU operations and its active agents and names of military intelligence officers working in Russia and elsewhere, for which he was paid $5,000-6,000 a month.

The contrast between May's decisiveness about Russian behavior and the endless search by certain ambitious members of the U.S. Congress, particularly Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), seemingly obsessed in a lifelong search for evidence of "collusion" between the Trump campaign organization and unnamed Russian officials, could not be more stark.

May stated firmly that there is no conclusion other than that the Russian state is culpable for the attempted murders in Salisbury and for threatening the lives of British citizens in the town by use of a nerve agent.  It was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the U.K.

There are two possibilities.  One is that the Kremlin is officially behind the various assassinations and attacks.  The other is that the Russian government has lost control of its stockpile of poison and nerve agents and that rogue groups are acting.  However, May concluded that there is no credible evidence that Russia has lost control of its nerve agents.

The prime minister stated the reality: the Skripals were poisoned with military-grade nerve gas of a type developed by Russia.  Arguing that Russia views defectors as a legitimate target for assassination, May concluded that it is highly likely that Russia is responsible for the act against the Skripals.

May's decisiveness stems from the findings of police and security investigations that the Skripals were exposed to a nerve agent called novichok, developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s and never known to have been previously used.  It is said to be eight times more potent than VX gas, highly dangerous to handle, and requiring skilled scientists and engineers to produce.  This is important because this agent can be produced by only a few labs in the world, one of which is the Yasenevo lab in the outskirts of Moscow, run by the Russian SVR spy service.

It is said there are now more Russian agents in Britain, many pretending to be businessmen, than during the Cold War.  Some wealthy Russians in London, such as Alisher Usmanov, who owns 30% of Arsenal football club, and Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea club, are not part of this group.  In addition, a number of Russian defectors still live in the U.K.  Among them are Oleg Gordievsky, former head of the KGB's London station, who worked for British intelligence since 1974, and the writer and former GRU officer known as Viktor Suvorov, who defected in 1978.

Suspicious deaths have not taken a holiday in Britain, nor have attempts at murder.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Murder, Inc. existed in the U.S. as an organized crime gang in New York and other places, notable for contract killings.  The question confronting the U.K. is whether a similar group, official or unofficial, is at work in the country as contract enforcers against critics of the Kremlim or former Russian spies who have been turned.

U.K. authorities are now certain about the assassination in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, former FSB officer who worked for British intelligence, and a constant critic with Boris Berezovsky of President Putin.  An official inquiry reported on January 21, 2016 that there was a strong circumstantial case that the Russian state was responsible for Litvinenko's death.  He was poisoned by two Russians, one of whom was a KGB man, with Polonium-210 that had been manufactured in a nuclear reactor.  This suggested they were acting for a state body rather than a criminal organization.

The latest suspicious incident took place on March 11, 2018.  Curiously, the victim uttered intimations of his fate a few days before his death: "Too many bodies are happening in Britain."  This was 68-year-old Nikolai Glushkov, found dead in his house in a suburb in southwest London as an apparent suicide, but traces of strangulation appeared on his neck.  He had been first deputy general of the Russian state airline Aeroflot and had spent five years in prison for money-laundering and fraud.  He was freed in 2004 and has sought political asylum in Britain since 2006.

Glushkov appeared to be leading a reclusive life in his suburb home, but his death is suspiciously akin to that of his friend Boris Berezovsky, who was found in 2013 hanged in his bathroom, another apparent suicide.  Glushkov voiced the opinion that his friend did not commit suicide but was strangled to death.  Perhaps as a result of this, Glushkov was sentenced in absentia in Russia to a eight-year prison sentence for embezzlement of $122 million from Aeroflot and ordered to pay the money back.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury, saying it appears to be another attempt by U.K. authorities to discredit Russia.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, has denied involvement with the poisoning, stating that Russia had nothing to do with it and that the accusations made by British authorities are unfounded.  For his part, President Putin has responded that nobody should threaten a nuclear power.

Prime Minister May has refused to accept these Russian denials and threatened "punitive measures."  There is no complete break of all dialogue between the two sides.  However, May is proposing a variety of actions.  In addition to the expulsion of the 23 Russians at the embassy, she has suggested new laws to harden defense against hostile state activity; checking flights and goods coming from Russia; canceling planned talks with Russian officials; freezing assets belonging to the Russian government; detaining suspected spies; and banning government officials from attending the World Cup in Moscow, an event that can be used for propaganda purposes, as was the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Other suggestions are that Britain may engage in a cyber-counterattack on Russian troll factories or computer networks, depending on specific circumstances.  Britain already has a specialist unit run by the ministry of defense and the Government Communication Headquarters dedicated to offensive cyber-warfare, under the command of General Sir Chris Deverell.  Also, May is contemplating a law similar to the U.S. Magnitsky law banning travel of senior Russian officials.

The Kremlin reply to the statements of Prime Minister May is that similar accusations about Russia have been made since Sherlock Holmes, that the U.K. has been feeding Russophobia and is Moscow's worst opponent in the West.  The Kremlin claims that Russia has stopped producing nerve agents and completely destroyed all its stockpiles, but as the great Chico Marx once said, "Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

Has Russia adhered to the principles of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, signed in 1997, for all chemical weapons to be destroyed?  This is doubtful in view of the bombings in 1999 of apartment buildings in three Russian cities that appear to have been organized by Russian state services, perhaps to provide a pretext for a second Chechen war, but which led to the emergence of Putin, then an acting prime minister, as a prominent figure.  Noticeably, those who have tried to investigate the truth of the bombings have been assassinated.

It is crucial that the U.S, the E.U., and NATO join with Britain to prevent further "accidents."  It is much too extreme to suggest that these incidents are the forerunner of World War III, but the West has received notice of the dangers that may lie ahead.  Aggression by political murder must not stand.

Image via the Kremlin.