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Essay: British Skill vs. Russian Killers

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Tensions remain high between Russia and the UK in the wake of a case that involves double-agents, poisoning, and collateral damage.

The case may have sounded like a relic of the Cold War, but Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr says there is a contemporary context for it:

Prime Minister Theresa May and colleagues in Britain’s government reconfirm the quality and effectiveness of her nation’s police and intelligence work.

On September 5, the British government issued warrants for the arrest of two Russian nationals, Rusian Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, for attempted murder. Massive evidence has been assembled through high-tech means and old-fashioned, human-insight police work.

The despicable effort in early March to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England provides a grim reminder that the Cold War may be over, but Russia remains a dangerous and ruthless adversary. A police officer found the father and daughter unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, a city near London.

The Skripals and the police officer required hospitalization in intensive care. A Novichok nerve agent poisoned them. Novichok is the label for a highly lethal series of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union, beginning in 1971.

Novichok is an extremely rare chemical not readily available to the public, or even the criminal underworld. The military nerve agent remains a product of Russia. Four months after the attack, residue of the poison left behind by the attackers struck down two more British citizens, in no way tied to government intelligence or security agencies, one of whom died.

Boshirov and Petrov flew to Britain two days before the attempted murders. They entered the country on Russian passports. The British government worked quickly, identified them early, and continued to collect evidence.

Skripal worked for the GRU, the military intelligence arm of Russia’s government, until he retired in 1999. Later he confessed to working as a double agent for British intelligence from 1995.

In 2006, a Russia court convicted him and imposed a prison sentence of thirteen years. In 2010, authorities freed him as part of a U.S.-Russian spy swap, following the exposure of a ring of Russian espionage agents in the United States.

During Skripal’s trial, Russian media compared the damage done to state security to that of Oleg Penkovsky. That double agent provided important secret data to United States agents regarding Soviet military and intelligence resources.

Information he provided is credited with helping President John F. Kennedy and associates maneuver successfully through the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The Soviet state executed Penkovsky in 1963. According to one report, executioners burned him alive in a crematorium, a warning to deter others.

Also in 2006, Russian intelligence defector Alexander Litvinenko mysteriously suffered poisoning in London. On his deathbed, he blamed the Russian government.

In response to the March attack on the Skripals, Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, presented a truly strange defense. In a long, rambling statement, he introduced the name of Sherlock Holmes, the legendary fictional British detective.

Nebenzya publicly compared the British government to Inspector Lestrade, the inept police officer regularly bested by the vastly more able Holmes. The Russian diplomat on this occasion proved himself inept, and unintentionally encouraged attention to another poisoning case.

In November 2012, Russian Alexander Perepilichny suddenly collapsed and died while jogging near London. One postmortem test found traces of Gelsemium, a toxic plant.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a medical doctor who experimented with a range of chemicals and plants, including Gelsemium. Sir Arthur concluded the plant could alleviate nerve pain but was also dangerous.

Holmes’ genius combines human insight and technical expertise. The British government has done the same in handling the brutal Skripal case.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and director of the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

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Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).