Did Vladimir Putin order the nerve agent attack in Britain that seriously injured three? Perhaps he did. But before pronouncing the Russian president guilty, it would be nice to see some evidence.
Extrajudicial attacks by great powers on real and imagined enemies are not unknown. The U.S. routinely uses drones to assassinate those — whether American citizens or not — whom it deems security threats.
It doesn’t much care if these targets are killed in countries, such as Yemen or Pakistan, with which Washington is nominally at peace.
Israel, too, has used assassination as a tool. In 1997, Israeli agents used phoney Canadian passports in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas official in Jordan.
In 1985, French intelligence agents famously blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior when it was at port in New Zealand, killing one.
The two agents convicted of the crime eventually spent less than two years in jail at a military base in French Polynesia.
In 1988, a British SAS unit assassinated three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar who were believed to be plotting a terrorist attack.
So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Russian agents were responsible for the chemical attack in England that put former double agent Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and a British police officer, in hospital on March 4.
Certainly, this is the position taken by British Prime Minister Theresa May who has said it is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.
She has been joined in this denunciation by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump, all of whom agreed in a joint communiqué that “there is no other plausible explanation.”
Canada’s Justin Trudeau too has decried Russia’s “likely” involvement.
The leaders’ careful use of the words “likely” and “plausible” reflects the fact that, to date, there is no hard evidence on who was behind the attack.
Skripal, a former Soviet intelligence agent who had worked secretly for Britain’s MI6 during the 1990s, was probably not on Moscow’s Christmas card list.
But he was not killed after being arrested and jailed by the Russians in 2004. Nor was there any effort by the Russians to exempt Skripal from a spy swap in 2010 that saw him relocated to England.
Putin was in power during this entire period. Why would the Russian president put in jeopardy his already strained relations with the West by trying to assassinate Skripal now?
May points out that the nerve poison used in the attack was first developed in the former Soviet Union during the ’70s and ’80s. But there is no indication that Russia maintained a monopoly on the toxin known as Novichok.
In fact, had Western countries followed the usual Cold War practice they would have developed their own versions of Novichok, if for no other reason than to search for antidotes.
As well, samples of Novichok could have been sold abroad by corrupt Russian officials during the Wild West years that followed the collapse of Communism. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, one of the few British politicians who does not assume a deliberate Russian plot, has said the attack could have occurred because Moscow “negligently lost control” of the toxin.
None of this means that Putin is in the clear. Russian agents have done this kind of thing before, most notably in 2006 when two of them killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent living in Britain, by lacing his tea with radioactive polonium.
A public inquiry later concluded that Putin had “probably” approved that assassination.
And perhaps he was involved in this attempt as well. Britain has wisely asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate. With luck, it will turn up some facts — which in the mad rush to blame the West’s favourite villain are sorely lacking.
Thomas Walkom is national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star. Prior to his current position, he was the Star’s Queen’s Park columnist covering Ontario politics for eight years, including the governments of Premiers Bob Rae and Mike Harris.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.