Rules of play established during the cold war are no longer binding
Russia denies any involvement in the affair. But Mrs May said her decision to point the finger at Moscow was based on its record of “conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations”. She said Britain must “stand ready to take much more extensive measures”. Mrs May’s tough response may be a result of the criticism she received as home secretary for not having taken stronger measures when the Kremlin was implicated in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian security services who was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006. A number of other exiled Russians have died in mysterious circumstances in Britain.
A huge investigation is now under way about what happened to Mr Skripal. And the East-West spy war could be entering new territory. Mrs May said that if there was no “credible response” from Russia by the end of March 13th, Britain would conclude there had been the “unlawful use of force”. Britain is already sounding out its allies about a co-ordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence officers based at diplomatic missions in the West, and visa bans on the many senior Russians with a background in the intelligence services. Financial sanctions against the assets of Kremlin cronies are also under discussion. Whatever happens, Britain will need to boost its spy-catching efforts: if the Kremlin is really willing to conduct reckless assassinations in Western countries, it is not only intelligence veterans who will feel nervous about their safety. The stark certainties of the cold-war spy world have given way to a new landscape: murky and in some ways more dangerous.