On Sunday a 44-year-old British woman died from exposure to one of the nerve agents known as novichok, a class of chemical weapons made only by the Soviet Union and Russia. The victim, Dawn Sturgess, was a mother of three living in a facility for the homeless, not an obvious target of the Russian government, Russian criminals, or anyone else sophisticated enough to get their hands on a state-made poison.
Sturgess did live in Salisbury, though, adopted hometown of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned with a novichok nerve agent in March along with his daughter Yulia Skripal. The substance causes asphyxiation and severe pain, but after a period of extreme illness, both Skripals recovered. The March attack caused a diplomatic row—London accused Moscow and expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and Russia expelled an equal number of British diplomats in return. That was all before the death of a hapless bystander, apparently thanks to a would-be assassin who left deadly poison lying around while failing to kill his actual target.
News accounts from the BBC and elsewhere suggest that Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley spent the day in Salisbury before they both fell ill. Medical professionals concluded that the same nerve agent was used in both the March attack and the new poisonings. Sturgess and Rowley are thought to have handled an object contaminated with the nerve agent, which was toxic enough to pass through their skin. Investigators have not publicly said what that object was, or where the couple found it, but Sturgess’ death has turned the case into a murder investigation.
Russia has denied ordering the hit on the Skripals, but beyond the appearance of having a motive—Sergei Skripal had a career selling Russian secrets to British intelligence—the British government and many experts believe that at the very least, Russia was the source of the poison. Some, including Russia historian Amy Knight, writing in the Daily Beast, have raised the possibility that Moscow lost track of some of its novichok. Through theft, duplicity, or the black market, someone else might have gotten a hold of the substance and perpetrated the attack.
With a name that means “newcomer,” the novichok were a group of nerve agents the Soviet Union and then Russia made until the early 1990s. “All novichok roads lead back to Russia,” Amy E. Smithson wrote for the Bulletin shortly after the March attack. As Smithson explains, much of what the outside world knows about manufacture of this class of chemicals came from a Soviet scientist whistleblower, Vil Mirzayanov.
It’s all a bit reminiscent of the Cold War. Except if this were the Cold War, the US president could be counted on to side with Britain against Russia and at the very least publicly criticize Moscow for conducting assassinations abroad. Trump has not done so, and continues to plan for a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit next Monday in Helsinki. In theory Trump will have a chance to address Russia’s behavior face to face, but given his track record of admiration for Putin, and his refusal to recognize Russia’s well-documented meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, it seems unlikely that he will.
This week, Trump heads to Brussels for a meeting of leaders of NATO, that bulwark against Russian expansionism he has called “obsolete.” Trump will then visit London and meet with Prime Minister Teresa May, even as British leaders have now said publicly that Russia was responsible for the second pair of poisonings as well as the first. In London Trump can expect protest, not just over his coziness with Putin, although the Salisbury attack has sharpened public anger towards Russia. Protestors plan to fly a six-meter-tall, helium-filled balloon depicting the US president as an angry orange baby.
Before taking off for Belgium on Tuesday, Trump lobbed Twitter broadsides at Europe, in keeping with his drumbeat of criticism over trade, NATO spending, and immigration policy. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, had a reply to the steady attacks, advising Trump to “Appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many.”