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Op-ed

When Putin used chemical weapons in England

4 years ago, in a deadly attack for which he paid no real price, Russia’s president showed he has no compunction in doing the unthinkable, unless or until he is denied the capacity

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Lighter paving stones at the site in Salisbury, England, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned on March 4, 2018 (DH / Times of Israel)
Lighter paving stones at the site in Salisbury, England, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned on March 4, 2018 (DH / Times of Israel)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

SALISBURY, England — If you look closely, you’ll see that a small patch of paving stones outside Superdrug and next to the Pet Foods stall in the center of this idyllic southern English city is a slightly lighter hue than those all around them. And if you ask around, you’ll find, however implausibly, that this holds a lesson for the international community as it internalizes the horrors Vladimir Putin is unleashing in Ukraine.

The original paving stones in this outdoor shopping arcade near the banks of the River Avon, you will discover, were ripped up four years ago, as was the public bench that rested upon them. Because it was on that bench, on March 4, 2018, that Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer turned British intelligence agent, and his daughter Yulia, were found unconscious, having been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok by two senior Russian army intelligence agents.

Spotted by an experienced British Army nurse who happened to be passing by, the two were rushed to the hospital in critical condition. While they survived after weeks of intensive treatment, a woman who lived a few miles away, Dawn Sturgess, was not so fortunate. Three months later her boyfriend happened to find the perfume bottle containing the Novichok, discarded by Putin’s assassins in a charity donation box, gave it to her, and she died soon afterward.

As Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on the Trump administration’s National Security Council, noted in a recent interview, “There was enough nerve agent in that bottle to kill several thousand people.”

The paving stones may have been replaced, and a vast cleanup long since completed of all the sites associated with that deadly Russian chemical weapons attack, but Salisbury remembers.

On a bright, chilly Tuesday late morning, two uniformed security guards are patrolling the shops and stalls in Market Square, and when I approach to ask them a little about the shocking events of 2018, and whether this genteel city has recovered, the woman operating a food stall within earshot shouts out, unasked and angry, “We’re recovered, but we’ve not forgotten.”

Market Square, Salisbury, England, April 5, 2022 (DH / Times of Israel)

Unsurprisingly, Salisbury has been strikingly active in support of Putin’s vastly wider current target, Ukraine — including by raising funds via everything from Easter egg hunts to cake sales, delivering humanitarian aid to refugees at Ukraine’s borders, organizing to offer spare rooms to Ukrainian refugees, and praying. Hundreds of locals joined a solidarity march soon after the Russian invasion, ending with a service inside the Cathedral, beneath the tallest spire in all of Britain. Salisbury council has been flying the Ukrainian flag.

The Russian attack on Salisbury could have been so much worse, so much more devastating. Putin’s killers, as the Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr wrote last month, “sauntered down a Salisbury street without making any effort to disguise themselves, in full view of 100 or more security cameras, and released a deadly nerve agent. And then? Then they threw away the bottle.” But what, Cadwalladr went on to ask, if Dawn Sturgess’s boyfriend hadn’t found it? What if that devastating nerve agent had spread? What if it “had entered the water table?”

Manifestly, Putin’s killers didn’t care about those potential consequences. They didn’t care, because they knew their boss didn’t care.

Yulia Skripal during an interview in London, May 23, 2018. (Dylan Martinez/Pool via AP)

In the Chapter House at Salisbury Cathedral, the best-preserved of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta is on display. Eight hundred years old, the “Great Charter of Freedoms” enshrined for the first time that the king and his government were not above the law — a pioneering text characterized by Lord Denning, one of England’s most respected modern judges, as “the greatest constitutional document of all time — the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

Four years ago, Vladimir Putin placed himself above the law in Salisbury, using chemical weapons to deadly effect, putting untold civilians in danger. And he paid no meaningful price.

It was a small indication of his callousness, his conviction that he is above anyone’s regulation. It was by no means his only involvement in the use of chemical weapons; just look at Syria. But it was notable in showing Putin’s indifference to orchestrating the unthinkable in full view of the civilized world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 18, 2022. (Sergei GUNEYEV / POOL / AFP)

The Salisbury poisonings should have helped guarantee alarms sounded more loudly when Putin turned his attention to Ukraine. They should underline that despots like the Russian president should not and cannot be appeased or reasoned with. They should help ensure that nobody doubts his readiness to do the unthinkable, unless or until he is denied the capacity.

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