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Gas or Guns? The means of assassination matter

March 28, 2018 – CSPS Student Fellow Daniel Fielden considers the state-level response to the recent assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom by the Russian Government within the context of previous state orchestrated assassinations.

Daniel Fielden

March 28, 2018

If you were to ask your neighbor how they feel about chemical weapons, they would likely recoil; a visceral reaction to the horror of being gassed “like a bug.” Citizens of the United States and other Western populations have a distinct fear of chemical weapons, perhaps only trumped by a fear of all things nuclear. The reaction chemical weapons invoke has been furthered by popular culture, such as in Wonder Woman, where the heroes must prevent an upgraded version of mustard gas from being released on London. The filmmaker capitalizes on the perception that the release of such a weapon would be worse than London being bombed.

On March 4, an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were found unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England. Four days later, the Home Secretary stated that they were poisoned with a nerve agent, the use of which she called a “brazen and reckless act.” The Prime Minister stated that “Mr. Skirpal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” and identified the material as a “novichok” agent. News of the assassination attempt and additional exposures erupted, with hundreds of stories published around the world in just the first week. As of publishing, more than 20 countries have expelled Russian diplomats, with the United States announcing the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle.

The most comparable assassinations in recent history are those of Alexander Litvinenko, another ex-Russian spy, killed with polonium-210 in England, and Kim Jong Nam killed with VX in Malaysia. The UK inquiry into Litvinenko’s death concluded that “the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by…President Putin.” While there is less direct evidence about the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, it is likely that it was ordered by Kim Jong Un. In both cases, investigations into the assassination led back to state leaders, thus making the killing a state action.

The use of chemical weapons was first discussed in 1899 at the First Hague Conference. The American delegate to the Conference, Admiral Alfred Mahan, argued that it was “illogical and not demonstrably humane” to refuse to kill with asphyxiating gas when all the delegates agreed it was acceptable to sink a ship in the middle of the night and leave the sailors to drown. Admiral Mahan’s opinion, however, was not widely accepted and a declaration prohibiting the use of asphyxiating gases was ratified by all the other major powers. Ironically, nearly all the countries who ratified the declaration would forget their commitment to civility in the pursuit of military victory and use chemical weapons during the First World War.

Admiral Mahan’s point that suffocation is suffocation, regardless of the means, is still not widely accepted. The international community continues to believe that the methods by which we kill each other matter and have made many attempts to manage these methods. This is exemplified by the enactment of treaties regulating technology used in state violence, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Biological Weapons Convention, and Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

The assassination attempt on March 4, 2018, is clearly perceived to be different than the most comparable case: Litvinenko. Yet, there are striking similarities: an ex-Russian spy poisoned by a rare chemical within the UK. The UK government expelled 4 diplomats over Litvinenko. Twenty-three diplomats were expelled, so far, over Skirpal, with talk of additional actions yet to come. Why has the UK and the international community reacted more strongly to the attempt on Sergei Skirpal?

There are four main reasons for this increased reaction:

  1. Russia violated the terms of the CWC. Novichok is a binary nerve agent. Russia never declared binary nerve agents when it acceded to the CWC and so either failed to meet its obligations by omitting them from its declaration or has continued chemical weapons research. This is particularly troublesome as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons marked the completion of Russia’s destruction of its chemical weapons last October. Russia may argue that the agent is made from chemicals available in commercial markets, thus as they are not subject to CWC restrictions (i.e., not listed in the CWC Annex on Chemicals). As the agent’s sole use is to cause “death or other harm” through its toxic properties, however, it would certainly meet the intended definition of a chemical weapon under Article II of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  2. Litvinenko was poisoned by ingestion while it appears that Skirpal was poisoned through skin contact. This means that only Litvinenko was affected by the polonium-210. The public perceives members of militaries and intelligence services to be “fair game,” but abhors harm done to innocent bystanders, such as exposed as UK law enforcement and Skirpal’s daughter.
  3. The inquiry into Russia’s involvement in Litvinenko’s death was only published 2 years ago and so the events surrounding it are fresh in the memory of the UK, and the attempt on Skirpal is an escalation in Russian assassination techniques.
  4. Putin’s actions come at a time when the perception of Russian interventionism in foreign affairs is highly publicized (e.g., meddling in Western elections, engagement in Syria).

While the increased reaction is applauded, more direct and specific action should be taken by all NATO members to ensure continued escalation of interventionism is not considered to be a viable option by Russia. NATO countries must consider the use of a non-declared binary chemical nerve agent to kill as an attack with a chemical weapon. That attack must be responded to with appropriate measures. Expulsion of diplomatic personnel with intelligence ties is a good start, but more must be done to ensure that the decisionmakers within the Russian government feel direct consequences for authorizing such an action.

Daniel Fielden is a graduate student in the International Security Master’s program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is also completing a graduate certificate in National Security and Public Policy. He started in the security field by focusing on homeland security issues, specifically terrorism and CBRNE, as they relate to first responders (fire, EMS, and law enforcement). His focus is nuclear strategy, intelligence policy, and covert and paramilitary operations. He works as a government contractor and is a volunteer firefighter in Loudoun County.

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