On the surface, the Skripal poisoning seems like a minor issue on the scale of international politics: a couple of Russian secret service agents poison a couple of Russian citizens in their UK home. Understandably a big enough crime for the pair of assassins to go to jail, but a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things compared to an event such as the invasion of Crimea.

So why does the UK government raise so much fuss about the whole ordeal? What's the big deal?

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    Comments deleted. Please do not use comments to answer the question. Also, please keep the comments relevant to the question. – Philipp Sep 16 at 1:18

11 Answers 11

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One of the primary functions of government is to protect its residents from capricious actions of foreign governments.

In fact, one of the tests for a government to be recognized as sovereign is that they reserve for themselves a monopoly on the use of force within their boundaries. Many governments refuse recognition of the various aspirational Palestinian governments precisely because they do not have this. You simply must have this condition to be considered sovereign in your own territory.

Because of this, willfully using violence within the borders of another country without their permission has always been considered a red line. Doing that is simply incompatible with recognition of that government as a sovereign entity.

The UK really has only two options here; either do nothing and tacitly admit that they will allow Russia to whatever it wants within UK borders (and are thus essentially a client state), or publicly put a stop to it.

The traditional way to "publicly put a stop to it" of course has always been war.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – yannis 2 days ago
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    The final statement - The traditional way to "publicly put a stop to it" of course has always been war. - is an exaggeration. States have always had ways to express their displeasure that stop short of outright war. – Jack Aidley 2 days ago
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    @JackAidley - I didn't say "to express displeasure" though. Once another state has publicly asserted a right to use of force in your territory, "displeasure" is not longer enough. You have to show that you can stop it, or the condition of monopoly of force no longer applies. One or the other. – T.E.D. 2 days ago
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    @JackAidley - Also didn't say there weren't other ways. Just said the traditional way used in this particular situation is War. This is why forcing a border incident in a disputed border region has always been the go-to casus belli between neighbors. Either the other side tacitly admits you actually own the disputed region, or you get the war you want. – T.E.D. 2 days ago
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    @JackAidley - This isn't a single "transgression". Russian has been doing this in the UK for quite a while. They clearly have no intention of stopping and will have to somehow be forced to do so. Are there ways short of war to get them to do that? Probably. What's the traditional way to stop another country that is repeatedly violating your sovereignty despite protests? War. – T.E.D. 2 days ago

What's the big deal?

The UK government believes that the government of Russia sent military personnel onto its territory to kill UK citizens. There's a word for one country sending its military into another country uninvited, and the word is "war".

To make matters worse, this killing was carried out using chemical weapons. These are Weapons of Mass Destruction under the internationally recognized Geneva Protocol in 1925 (Russian withdrawal in 2001), BWC in 1972 (Russian signed and ratified), and CWC in 1993 (Russian signed and ratified) - and the fact that the only death was of an unrelated civilian and the widespread contamination of the area demonstrates the accuracy of this description. The UK government has not formalised this to the same extent as the US, but the Butler Review described UK policy as following US doctrine.

So, the UK believes Russia has carried out an act of war using weapons of mass destruction. If you don't consider this a big deal, I don't understand why not.

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    Are there any (official) sources naming the assassinations as "acts of war" or military actions? – janh Sep 14 at 13:18
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    I don't think you need to reference US doctrine. The first line of the United Nation's Chemical Weapons Convention—which both the UK and Russia have signed—reads The States Parties to this Convention, Determined to act with a view to achieving effective progress towards general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control, including the prohibition and elimination of all types of weapons of mass destruction, and I suspect the substance used would easily fit the Article II definition of a Chemical Weapon. – 1006a Sep 14 at 16:30
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – yannis Sep 14 at 20:07
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    Russia did not withdraw from the Geneva Protocol. Instead, in 2001 they withdrew reservations earlier made by the USSR. – Roman Odaisky 2 days ago
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    @Sty If they are from GRU (military intelligence) then they are military personnel. Though they tend to like to point to "ГРУ ГШ ВС РФ" simply because it's much more scary abbreviation than "ФСБ" (or other "three letter" boring services) ;) – seven-phases-max yesterday
  1. Using chemical weapons crosses a line in international agreed norms. In this case the use of them killed a British Civilian, compounding the seriousness.

  2. This is a continuation of previous behaviour - at some point you have to say 'No' loudly enough or else Russia will take it as open season on anyone it wants to murder.

  3. 'Why the big deal' - I'd argue not enough of a deal has been made. The headline retaliation has been that a few 'diplomats' (read spies, but to be fair everyone does that) have been expelled.

  4. The assassination was designed to show a message - don't cooperate with the UK/West. At a time where Russia has de-facto invaded its neighbour the UK/West needs intelligence more than ever, and need to send their own message to potential assets - 'we're not going to just sit back while you're murdered'.

There have been a number of similar murders linked to Russia, which raised little fuss at the time. However these (with the exception of Litvinenko) were not carried out using poison.

The big fuss is about the use of poison. First, the use of poison (and particularly nerve agents) is banned by international treaty. Second, their use carries significant risk of harm to other people and a major clean-up challenge (Litvinenko, Skripal) for the country where they were used.

Also, with many of the previous murders the link to the Russian state is tentative and circumstantial; if someone is shot on their doorstep it might have been some kind of gangland killing or personal vendetta. However use of polonium or nerve agents is a clear sign of government involvement.

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    It seems this answer would be improved by stating the obvious too: extrajudicial killing by state agents are considered at best ethically questionable (US drone striking a US citizen in Yemen?), and for a state to choose to kill someone living in another country is an enormous insulting violation of trust. If Britain was suspected of killing a British citizen inside Russia it seems unlikely that the Russian government would just let it go. It's also that the kind of weapon used is basically a Russian calling card, it's far less deniable. – inappropriateCode Sep 14 at 8:42
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    I would say the emphasis here is on the use of chemical weapons specifically rather than poisons generally. – JBentley Sep 14 at 9:31
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    @JBentley Yes, but I didn't want to get bogged down over whether polonium is strictly within the definition of "chemical weapon". – Paul Johnson Sep 14 at 9:47
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    To add on to this: Russia knew that the use of the nerve agent would point at the Russian State as the culprit in the assassination(s). Its use was an indirect challenge to the UK government. – C Henry Sep 14 at 14:06
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    @inappropriateCode it is worth mentioning that, unlike the US and allied drone strikes against their citizens abroad, the Skripals were not combatants. Skripal had been exchanged in a prisoner swap. It is hard to see how he could still have been a threat to Russia. – rghome Sep 14 at 14:23

Russia is the big deal.

An example with little to no "big fuss": Turkey. The turkish intelligence services are regularly implicated (and sometimes convicted) in political executions in Europe (examples: London, Paris).

However: Turkey is officially an ally, Russia is not. There's some (short lived) public outcry in the media after each case, and some quiet criticism on government levels, but no sanctions or other lasting repercussions.

It's not about the actions, it's about who is committing them.

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    The outcry in France after the 2013 murders of Kurds was anything but "short-lived"... – Evargalo Sep 14 at 7:12
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    @Evargalo You're referring to the media in France, I assume. On a European scale, it was. It was news in other countries, but (mostly speaking from a German perspective here) nothing more. It never had the same attention and faded rather quickly from the headlines when compared to the Russian murders in the UK. – janh Sep 14 at 8:42
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    There are two other possible reasons why the Skripal and Litvinenko incidents might have caused more fuss: they were both UK citizens, and poisons were used (with significant backsplash in both cases). There are other past murders linked to Russia which also failed to cause a major fuss. I think your attempt to link the fuss to the identity of the perpetrator fails. – Paul Johnson Sep 14 at 9:57
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    @PaulJohnson We should petition Israel to use poison for the next assassinations in Europe (as they allegedly did with Wadie Haddad in East Germany in the 70ies and in Jordan in the 90ies) for science, or ask Russia to choose street executions with guns. I haven't heard "we're okay with assassinations, but please don't use poison" before, but it's certainly possible. – janh Sep 14 at 10:32
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    Russia has murdered far more than those two - the difference being in the fuss cases that nuclear and chemical weapons used in both cases, a) making it clear beyond doubt that it was a state actor and b) increasing the seriousness of the attack, including the danger to third parties as we have tragically seen. – Orangesandlemons Sep 14 at 13:20

Let's start with the "whataboutery" (you can't complain about this because what about something else). Britain has been very vocal about the Crimea situation but it's a foreign issue between two sovereign nations, neither of which are Britain.

As for why they should bother about the Skripal's it's as simple as a foreign nation sent spies to another nation to poison people using a military grade chemical weapon. I could go on to expand all the reasons wrong with that, but essentially as it was state sponsored then it is akin to an act of war.

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  • (Unrelated -- are you in the UK? In the US I've always seen it referred to as Whataboutism, but even the Wiki page uses "whataboutery", so I'm just curious if it's a regional difference) – BruceWayne yesterday
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    It's an old Scottish phrase, it just seems to have been picked up by the mainstream in the last couple of years. Can't think of why... ;) – Ric Paton yesterday

There are a few unwritten rule when one county kills someone in another.

  • Do not put other people at risk.
  • Do not "rub the face" of the host country in it by making it clear you did the killing.
  • Do not create a high lever of fear in the citizens of the host country.
  • Let the host country pretend it never happened.

Add to all the above that a large area of a city is having to be decontaminated at great cost.

If it was done by "pushing someone under a bus" it is unlikely much would have be done........

The resultant 'fuss' is the increasingly angry response to an accumulated series of Russian acts of aggression - followed by the tried and tested tactic: repeated denial and obfuscation.

Precedence. If the UK become aware that this is happening on UK soil and they turn a blind eye to it then Russia will keep doing it. Other countries will see that the UK was soft on this and also start doing it.

Then it can spread to other countries and this can become a normal thing, internationally.

One of the reasons the International community was so robust in responding to this is that no country wants this to become the norm, where a government can go around poisoning people they don't like. It could start with spies getting poisoned, then defectors, political opponents and international leaders etc.

Twitter arguments could turn into executions. So it needed to be nipped in the bud, robustly before it became a more widespread way of dealing with things.

Will Russia stop? Probably not, but every other country now knows it's a big no no. It's bad enough than country bug and spy on each other, but in this case a line was crossed. Diplomacy is always the favoured option.

Also, Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive on other fronts. These include Russian hacking, which most IT security guys living in the UK are well aware of. We're constantly dealing with attempted attacks from Russian IP addresses. This involves everything from spamming to ransomware and brute force attacks and attempts to break in to networks and servers. They are also involved in a lot of the ICO crypto scams. Then there's Crimea, Syria and the fact that Russian military vehicles keep on entering our airspace and sea territories without permission. The UK is more than right to be concerned about Russian actions and intentions.

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It may be partly linked to the American claims that Russia hacked the 2016 election by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. Both Labour and Tory parties have close ties to the Democratic party, much closer than to the Republican party, especially since the Tea party take over.

There is quite a trigger happy response to Russia and it's allies (Iran and Syria) state actions, and a tendency to default to guilty until proven innocent (with no independent investigations. While Russia certainly did meddle in the 2016 election, it's social media campaign was very small, and most of its ads were run after the election. More serious are the claims that Russia hacked the DNC servers, and leaked secret emails from the Clinton campaign that may have cost her votes. The nature of these emails was interesting, often dealing with collusion between the Clinton campaign, the media and the DNC, in favor of Clinton and to the detriment of Bernie Sanders. Despite this, Clinton won the popular vote, but lost overall due to the Electoral College, and Clinton went on to blame Russia for Trump winning the election.

US media has been going crazy with the Russia stories ever since. I think that in part, the Skripal poisoning furore may be an act of solidarity with the Democratic party establishment. We know that international politics often takes the from of team sports, where we adopt the enemies of our allies, and we also adopt the friends of our allies. The UK and Canada joining in America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 was quite a good example of this. But of course, it was also a serious incident. A chemical weapons attack on British soil. I remain sceptical as to whether Russia would be brazen or stupid enough to carry out a chemical weapons attack on UK soil, especially with the anti Russian hysteria in America, but it's a possibility, and one that needs to be taken very seriously.

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  • Note: you're assuming that Russian government is hurt by the anti-Russian hysteria in the US (and kind of everywhere else, let's be honest). Indeed, it's very possible they're benefiting from it, and don't mind encouraging it. It's not a new tactic, and it's been used quite a bit by the USSR. Whenever someone claims he economy in Russia sucks, they can just say "It's their fault! They're actively opposing us and don't want to be part of fair trading relationships." In the past, this also worked on people in the other countries (like France, UK), especially the left-leaning kind. – Luaan yesterday
  • How would Russia benefit from the anti-Russia hysteria in Washington and Westminster? Would Russians actually care? Would they blame the west, or blame their own government for allegedly doing something to anger the west? I'm a sceptic regardless, the whole operation seemed decidedly amateur hour, very sloppy for GRU, and terrible timing too, just before the World Cup. – Icarian yesterday

The mainstream explanation has already been given.

There is an alternative theory, which is not strictly exclusive:

It serves a greater political purpose.

There are a number of oddities in the handling of the Skripal case, including the fact that the victims are seemingly completely isolated now from both press and family and why one of the presumably most deadly poisons in the world, applied by presumably agents of a superpower secret service failed to actually kill. There are more oddities that a quick Google search will reveal.

The case does serve a number of political purposes, however. It contributes to the ongoing narrative about Russia as an aggressor. It helps to put Russia on the defensive in other topics. And it helps as a distractor from whatever topic of the day needs distraction.

It is being used in such manners. Among the various ways of handling the issue, the one being used at this time is the one that is the most useful to UK politicians.


Note: I don't pass judgement on who is the guilty party, there are a number of claims that it wasn't actually the Russians. My argument is entirely about the "raising of so much fuss" as asked in the question.

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    "applied by presumably agents of a superpower secret serve failed to actually kill" It killed alright. "There are a number of oddities in the handling of the Skripal case, including the fact that the victims are seemingly completely isolated now from both press and family " of course there's no logical reason for that, such as being targets for assassination. – Orangesandlemons 2 days ago
  • I'm not here to discuss politics. The point is that there have been similar cases in the past that were handled differently, and the greater political context provides a clue as to why that is. – Tom 2 days ago
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    I didn't discuss politics. I pointed out that someone was in fact killed, and that hiding the targets of an assassination attempt's location can hardly be called oddities. – Orangesandlemons 2 days ago
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    ' but that they are entirely incommunicado' no, Yulia gave an interview on TV. "The two people who died did not die in the Skripal poisoning, but in a separate event." ah, you want to nit-pick and argue its two different incidents. Then the answer " why one of the presumably most deadly poisons in the world, applied by presumably agents of a superpower secret serve failed to actually kill." is because it was applied to a door handle in wet weather, and nerve agents are known to degrade in such situations. – Orangesandlemons 2 days ago
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    I'm stopping this discussion here, because it simply doesn't belong. There are quite a few articles in quite a few magazines that concern themselves with what is odd about this case, I point to those for counterarguments and more in-depth. None of this contributes to the point that there is political profit to be made from making so much fuss about the case, irrespective of the question whether or not making a fuss is justified. – Tom 2 days ago

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