Putin's latest poison pen memo to Great Britain – You can't stop us! A cautionary tale for the United States, and the West.

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE March 15, 2018

From a toxicology perspective, Great Britain is becoming an interesting place again - unfortunately.  Once again "poison" has shared a headline with "Great Britain." 

Although there has always been the sense of mystery and intrigue, even a titillation associated with poison, (best seller status on murder mysteries will attest), as someone who has worked on poison cases, the cold reality - someone is dead, and someone else made it happen....cold blooded, intentional murder.

As for cold reality - what just happened in the UK isn't the stuff of spy novels. 007 won't hang off a helicopter, nab the bad guy, and bring him to justice. This is the real world. A world where some countries are facing the threat of interference (violence) or outright invasion from Russia, or other nations. A world where dictators spend their nations' wealth to build weapons of mass destruction, threatening their neighbors, while the people starve. This is a world where people live in terror, where disease, and death tug at their arm every day. And this is a world where the notion of ‘nation' may not protect against an enemy from outside, or even from within. A sobering notion as we discuss homeland security, our relationship with hostile enterprises, and our world view which is too often colored by the media's delusion of kumbaya.

Great Britain, alas, is plagued with a growing threat (Ok threats, but we will talk terrorism at another time) from within; the same adversary deeply drilled into UK industries, and economics. It has also been the safe haven (term used loosely) for dissidents who have sought freedom from oppressive regimes. Starting to sense the plot here?

Only last week in a relatively sleepy, picturesque part of England,  Sergei V. Skripal, a Russian defector, and former informant for Britain's foreign intelligence service, and his daughter, Yulia, were exposed to a nerve agent compound.  It is likely "made in Russia." Several other people were exposed; still remain in intensive care facilities. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister May and her Majesty's government have reawakened to the threat of Russia in their midst.

Too little too late?

One might think the UK is merely another territory of Russia, based upon the number of dead dissidents in their midst in recent years. It is a growing number of former Russians who crossed Putin or the FSB and died under suspicious circumstances. That innocent bystanders are increasingly at risk, whether by intent or accident - reveals the level of resolve, or sense of disregard for people that the perpetrators have.

Public assassinations aren't new in Great Britain. Let me share some of the high profile ones.

In 1978 Georgi Markov was stabbed with an umbrella - at the tip was a tiny pellet filled with ricin. Ricin is a highly lethal toxin; Markov died shortly thereafter.  dr r liver The image at left is what (primate) lungs look like after ricin poisoning. The pellet design was ingenious - the vaunted KGB technology directorate, not undeservingly, has earned a reputation for deadly creativity. That said, they subsequently came up with another method of assassination - more painful, and in many ways, more frightening - radioactivity. Nothing puts a chill into the heart and soul of a society like the notion of radiation poisoning.

Although there have been suspicious deaths in the intervening years, in 2006 another Russian dissident, and journalist, former FSB agent *****Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium. It, too, had the feel of a Kremlin hit. For starters, polonium is not an off the shelf poison. It is expensive, requires a bit of planning, proper handling, and some knowledge of radiation science, just in case something goes wrong.

As an aside, compare polonium with the recent nerve agent attack. To be sure battlefield agents are carefully made, and are not the stuff of kitchen chemists. Nevertheless, with some expert guidance you could make a poor man's nerve agent much easier than obtaining something from a nuclear reactor. And guess which country is the leading producer of polonium? How do you spell Russia? Interestingly, to add insult to injury, there are some in Russia who didn't think the Brits could or would diagnose Litvinenko with radiation sickness. They were partially correct. Of course either way the assassins win. If target dies - suspiciously or not, he's dead. If target dies with the eyes of the world watching significant suffering, grizzly gastrointestinal tract destruction - all the better. A painful warning to others.

And there have been many others in the UK, and West- healthy people suddenly dying of "heart attacks," or seemingly stable, happy people suddenly committing suicide. Not that the Russians need to be that clever or stealthy. Sometimes a bullet, or hail of bullets will do the trick as well. Consider a journalist in the US who was getting too close to the Litvinenko case - shot in his driveway,  or the bevy of journalists in Russia shot to death at home, and on the streets.

So last week what was likely a Russian brand of nerve agent was utilized to try and kill. Poisons - whether toxin or toxicant - are messages. It is personal. It says we can get up close and personal. You can't stop us.

Experts at Great Britain's chemical weapons skunk works - Porton Down have suggested it is one of the Russian "novichok" or secret and newer nerve agents. As my colleagues and I have lectured on, and written about, these are not exactly new, or a secret - Russians have developed their own VX and other nerve agents over the years. 

Nerve agent can cause a rather unpleasant death. Here are some of the symptoms: seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, bronchospasm, drowing in your own saliva, coma, and death. Definitely not a pretty picture.  As you would read in any good reference book, including mine, there are medications for most commonly used NA. However, adding to the mystique of Russian poisons is the notion that their types of nerve agents (Russian VX, Novichok, etc) resist conventional therapies. Maybe. Time to treatment, the right combination of medications, the underlying health of the patient - all play a role. It is not simple cook book medicine even in the best of hospitals.

Some suggest the nerve agent used was some unaccounted for munitions used by non state sponsor. Doubtful anything would be off Putin's books. That said, nevertheless, that notion remains a concern beyond what happened in the UK. In preparedness circles, this has remained a major issue we were concerned about. After the fall of the Soviet Union, bioweapons facilities were ‘theoretically' looted or materials just ‘disappeared.'  Given Russia - on the up market, and sub rosa remains one of the leading weapons dealers to terrorists and rogue nations, not to mention criminal cartels, the potential for black market acquisition of oh, say small pox, or nerve agent, or even highly effective anti tank rockets is a concern.

In fact prior to the fall of the USSR, sources suggest there were more scientists and efforts expended in their Plague bioweapons program than likely the entire US biological defense program. If anyone thinks the Russian WMD program is mothballed, think again.

We, too, must be as aggressive as our adversaries; the reality is, we live in a dangerous world, and the only real, sustainable ‘peace' is through strength, not words, appeasement, or accommodating those who pose a threat.  The UK is experiencing that the hard way.

Russia still spends a significant amount of time and money with new weapons - hyper-speed cruise missiles, including some pretty nifty anti-ship ones, ultra megaton nuclear weapons, enhanced air defense systems, and as I've mentioned in the past - an impressive array of Arctic capable ships, aircraft, and other technologies.

Point is, while we concentrate on matters of little importance in contemporary society, there are threats out there, and in here, too!  You would think, given the Trump election that all of a sudden the US discovered Russia.  Truth time, the US, not unlike the UK, we, too, have succumbed to a weird seduction - a love/hate relationship with Russia. We just don't depend as much on, or have as much to lose from our relationship - or do we? The Left and DNC aggressively worked with Russia, Putin, Medvedev and business people from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Obama's hot mike moment with his Russian counterpart, or Hillary's pandering to, and trying to "reset" Russian relations. Let's not forget Bernie Sanders choosing to honeymoon in the worker's paradise of Russia, because he shares a philosophical affinity with their society (i.e. socialism). The left's slobbering love affair with Moscow politics for, oh say, 80 years, is evident in so much of the global damage occurring, in spite of the current faux hysteria against Putin and all things Russian. Putin has gotten his way on global events under Obama, and now Trump or his successor will have to clean up the mess. That won't be easy. The most committed usually win, and it is easier for a dictator than an elected official. Plus Putin is smart, and ruthless; A deadly combination that we cannot afford to keep underestimating.  

Getting back to poison in the UK, and what the Brits may do....

In 2006 after radiation was detected from restaurants and other places in the aftermath of Litvinenko, the Brits kicked and screamed for a few seconds, but at the end of the day, Putin revealed he can do what he wants inside Great Britain with impunity, and the West was largely anemic in response.  One of the perpetrators landed in the Duma. So much for law and order!  

So 2018 will be no different. PM May can sound off in Parliament, can call in Russia's foreign minister, can even have a chat with President Trump, but she and her advisors must know these harsh truths.... For starters - the Brits had a love/hate relationship with Russia for over a century - and as a result significant sympathy with and influence from Russia exists institutionally, from industry, and government to academia. As a result British Intelligence was infiltrated. Then as the economic fortunes of England waxed and waned, ultra liberal one world politics and political correctness took hold, the security services became seriously underfunded against the backdrop of global and domestic threats facing the UK. Moreover, the Brits paid the dark bargain and sold tomorrow's security for today's Rubles. Russian investment in Great Britain is significant. Russian penetration in local business is significant. Russian mafia and security agents in the UK is significant. And the Brits do not have the expertise, or the wherewithal to push back. That is the sad reality facing PM May, and her countrymen. As long as Russian influence, agents, and money are deeply entrenched in the UK, and British interests internationally are interdependent upon Russia's good graces, i.e. Putin's approval - oil, gas, and media ventures for starters - Britain can bluff and bluster all it wants, but at the end of the game it is aces and eights, while Putin has a royal flush.

What will Great Britain do now?

To be sure, the PM could invoke the UN. And as a reminder, just what countries are on the Security Council?

In the aftermath of yet another high profile assassination (attempt) on British soil, there are some harsh realities facing PM May. First, in her prior government role, she did very little to bolster internal security. Some sources tell me she in fact seemed to derail efforts at holding Russia accountable. Now she wants to be Wonder Woman and fight back? And therein lies the rub. With what can she push back?

PM May invited 23 Russians to leave the UK. Playing tit for tat with Russia? Good luck with that. At the end of the day it is an optic gesture. Reminiscent of the Cold War? Yes. Will there be blow back? Yes. Will Putin make the blow back more painful than the expulsion of his countrymen from the UK? Most likely.

Part 2 - will PM May order a round up of Russian mobsters?  Even if she had the law enforcement capacity, and judicial support, Russia will retaliate.

The threat of Russian retaliation alone ought not inform policy when such a morally repugnant act of spreading NA, and attack on sovereign territory has occurred. But the consequences still need to be considered. British media outlets, industries, and money are in Russia - and vulnerable. Although Russia needs customers, and capital investment, Great Britain is no longer the empire upon which the sun never sets.  She, too is vulnerable. Sanctions? Without the US and Europe piling it on (sanctions are already in place), the UK doesn't have the critical mass to move the Kremlin.

Europe may, may mind you, offer a Kleenex ® or even a shoulder to cry on for a nanosecond, until Putin reminds Germany, much of Scandinavia, the Baltics, Poland, and, well you get the idea - the pipelines can slow the flow of heat. Shivering voters don't put incumbents back into office. Europeans are easily sized up and out maneuvered. They exist merely as client states, transit routes, or customers, as far as Putin and Russia are concerned. They will never tug on the leash that is attached to oil and gas, because it gets cold in The Old World during winter months, and most industry is still dependent upon the fossil fuels Gazprom controls.

If I was counseling PM May - she should use this latest episode to enhance the capacity of her internal and external security forces, ferret out corrupting forces, and refocus investment to less precarious partnerships. Not a ready fix, nor a swift sword against the invader, but the right things to do.

Discussion

What is going on in Great Britain is a cautionary tale for us, in the United States, too. Consider under President Obama our dismal foreign policy against Putin's efforts. And Hillary Clinton - Allowing a Russian company to obtain some of our uranium is shameful. But it reminds us how strong Putin's commitment to outplaying his adversaries and competitors. Throughout the dark ages of Obama's presidency Russia grew military and commercial partnerships across the globe. Whether his nation is propped up on Monopoly money or Petrodollars is irrelevant. Putin sees the world as his personal Stratego game board, and will go to any length to obtain what he needs to build his nation, and his power base. 

Looking out my writing room window,  seeing a ton of snow on wires, my garage, and neighbors' houses, reminds me of our pathetic response to the Arctic - a region of untold resources, especially oil and gas. If Putin made a land grab right now - we could not stop him conventionally. Let me repeat that - we do not have the ice region capability, failing all out war, to stop Putin from planting flags on Santa's Village or other places in the Arctic.

As for business USA - how much Russian money do you think flows through our banks, or for that matter Main Street? Not sure? Give Hillary a call. I'm sure she knows. Nyet?  Or what about the LNG tanker off the coast, flagged Russian? Or what about our dependence on oil that comes from less than ideal sources? Trump is not wrong in trying to unleash US fossil fuel resources so that we are less dependent upon others. It is not only economically sound, it is smart from a security perspective.

In spite of pockets of former KGB and financial interests in the US from Russia with Love, to date, largely thanks to our terrific intelligence agents, and the fact that we have a heavier bat than the UK with which to retaliate - we have not experienced the level of assassinations, poisonings, and collateral damage that the Brits have at the hands of Russia, presumably on Putin's orders. But if we get careless, or too comfy/cozy or lazy, Great Britain could be what awaits us.

In the film "The Interpreter" it was said "there are no more countries, only companies." We in the West have allowed the notion of globalism, the transnationalization of industry and interests to dominate. In Putin's Russia, on the other hand, his view is that corporations are extensions of Mother Russia, and are responsible for, if not responsive to the country. To be sure there is no such thing as true capitalism there, and it is much easier to implement such concepts in a totalitarian regime. Many key industries are at best hybrids of state owned enterprises with some shareholders for show.  But the concept of country first is one that has for too long been missing in the West.  Again Trump's policy of tax cuts and repatriation of funds is one powerful incentive for a pseudo-patrioti$m.

Unlike the movies or spy novels where James Bond, or Mr. Smiley ultimately entrap the Russian mole, restoring order and harmony to the Old Kingdom, in real life it isn't quite that simple.

As I've written since first joining FSM, Putin plays chess with the West very deftly. Not that we make it all that difficult.

Readers of my work have seen me often quote Sun Tzu - know your enemy. After a decade of Putin running Russia, we still fail to grasp his skills, his ruthlessness, his objectives. Call me crazy, but when someone boldly tells you something repeatedly, pay attention. For example - Putin considers the Arctic Russian. And a growing part of it is flagged Russian. He lamented the break-up of the USSR. Any doubt he is reassembling the parts?  He has touted the use of energy to influence other nations. Any doubts how that is working? And he has stated publicly that those who betray Russia will be punished. Think polonium, think bullets, think nerve agent.   I've said it lots of times - Putin is not to be dismissed as a mere school yard bully. We need to take the threat seriously, and look at our global interests. And we had better start pushing back in strategic ways that put a dent in his global influence.

Now there will be some who suggest he is a toothless tiger, still capable of a jungle roar every so often.  That would be both an idiotic and ill informed thought.  And, as Prime Minister May has discovered (again) Russia's reach into the United Kingdom is unstopped, and likely unstoppable, at least for the moment.

Conclusion

I had toyed with the idea of titling this article "England - Russia's Western Province." But out of respect for a place I called home for a period of time, my love for the place, and people, and holding out hope that maybe the Brits will take the latest assault on their home soil as a wake-up call, I opted for a more benign title.

When all is said and done, PM May has to protect her nation. The use of nerve agent goes beyond single person poisoning - evil though that is, and has harmed innocents. Her options for prosecuting the perpetrator are currently limited. Her options against Russia are limited, unless she and her countrymen decide to take bold steps that will have painful consequence at least in the short term, but can show the Kremlin a level of resolve from the UK not seen in many years. This event should force May to rethink her prior strategies towards Russia, and homeland security. She needs to focus on the needed partnerships, and infrastructure improvements that have been overlooked for too long in Great Britain. Until that occurs, PM May will have to endure the harsh reality of Putin's latest poison pen memo to Great Britain - You can't stop us!

 

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    

 

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