THE LATEST THINKING
The opinions of THE LATEST’s guest contributors are their own.
Earlier this month a former Russian spy and his daughter were attacked by a military-grade nerve agent in the U.K. Chemical warfare has been on the rise since the time of World War II but it is rarely executed in the way seen a few weeks ago. What makes this attack different?
Nerve agents are a form of chemical warfare in which neurotoxins are used to paralyze or kill a person or group of people. There are three main types of nerve agents that have been developed since World War II. G-series -- the most common being sarin -- was developed by Germany, V-series by the U.K. and Novichok by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Novichok agents, which is what Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned from, were developed to be more toxic and quicker-acting than previous agents. They work by blocking acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is found at neuromuscular junctions and when it binds causes muscles to contract. When acetylcholinesterase is blocked there is too much acetylcholine binding, causing muscles to be permanently contracted and therefore paralyzed. It most often kills from cardiac arrest or respiratory failure as those muscles no longer function.
Skripal was a valuable spy for MI6, the U.K. intelligence agency, and leaked information from Russian agencies. He worked for the Russian intelligence agency GRU and was arrested in 2004 for being a double agent. He was recently released in a spy swap and moved to the U.K.
It makes sense that Russia would not be happy with his release, but poisoning a person on the streets of a U.K. town is a risky move and one that they are paying the price for as more and more diplomats are being removed. The only other situation that bears resemblance is the death of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, who was killed by nerve agents and exposed in a public place.
Why use a nerve agent in the first place? To me, it seems to stem from two places. On one hand, nerve agents targeted at just one or two people can be subtler. There is no dramatic gunshot or bloody scene on the streets. Maybe it was intended that they would not have fallen ill until back in the safety of their home, preventing public awareness. It also is a power move. Russia is showing the world that they possess a powerful weapon that they will use to make a point. To compare, this is very similar to the death of Skripal was not of much value anymore but he was targeted out of spite for past actions. The billboard reads: don’t mess with Russia; you will pay for it.
The gulf between Russia and Britain widened on Friday as they cranked up pressure over a nerve agent attack and a suspected...