epa06594096 Members of the armed forces in protective suits at a Salisbury ambulance station in Salisbury, Britain, 10 March 2017. Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were attacked with a nerve agent on 04 March 2018. Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in a 'very serious' condition. EPA/NEIL HALL EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL
The need for a stern response remains even if Kremlin involvement cannot be proved © EPA

A former Russian double agent who passed secrets to Britain is still fighting for his life alongside his daughter after being poisoned in the south-west of England with a rare nerve agent. In total, 21 people have been treated for exposure to the toxin. Once again, the finger of suspicion points towards Russia.

It is important not to rush to judgment. Though circumstantial evidence in terms of means and motive points strongly at Moscow, there is as yet no solid proof that Russians — still less the Kremlin itself — were behind the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal. Other states possess nerve agents and could in theory be behind the attack, for unknown motives.

Elements in the Russian security services, which have increasing links to organised crime, might have procured and used the lethal poison without Kremlin orders or knowledge. Russian agents could have targeted Mr Skripal on their own account, or because they believed they would somehow please President Vladimir Putin.

If Russian involvement is demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, the UK should not flinch from the “robust” response the government has promised. Britain’s less than resolute reaction to the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 appears to have emboldened Russian agents. As home secretary, Theresa May was partly responsible for the tepid response, delaying a public inquiry into the murder for years. A speech given after she became prime minister suggested she had moved to a harder line towards Russia. She should show that conversion is not cosmetic.

The need for a stern response remains even if Kremlin involvement cannot be proved. Mr Putin, if he chose, could make it known throughout his security structures that he will not tolerate “freelance” killings abroad.

Diplomatic expulsions are one option, but should be more sweeping than after the Litvinenko case — especially if, as then, charges are brought against Russians whom Moscow refuses to extradite. But it is also time to end the effort to shield UK-Russian business ties from the deteriorating political relationship.

The authorities should impose tougher checks on the provenance of Russian money used to acquire UK property or assets, and on Russian listings on the London stock market. Senior Russian officials — some of them even in government — and Kremlin-linked businesspeople who own UK property should be subject to much greater scrutiny. In some cases, property could even be stripped by using the unexplained wealth orders created by last year’s Criminal Finances Act, which empower UK law enforcement to seize proceeds of corruption.

The government should also make use of the so-called “Magnitsky amendment” to the same act — named after the late whistleblower on Russian corruption — to freeze assets of Moscow officials accused of human rights abuses. Senior Russians cannot expect to shelter wealth in London while being part of or actively supporting a Russian regime that dispatches killers to the UK to murder their compatriots.

Such measures would be far more powerful if Britain’s allies took similar steps. The UK’s vote to leave the EU might make some European partners less inclined to help. But, after annexing Crimea, fomenting war in eastern Ukraine, and almost certainly supplying the missile that downed Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in 2014, proof of attempted murder with a nerve toxin would suggest Russia is acting ever more like a rogue state. That is a threat to the whole Euro-Atlantic community — one it must unite to confront.

Letter in response to this editorial:

We must now increase our spending on defence / From Michael Harris, Brockenhurst, Hants, UK

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Vladimir Putin will sweep to victory in stage-managed polls, a week after the Skripal attack on British soil that Theresa May says is ‘highly likely’ to have been carried out by the Russian government. Here’s the best of this week’s opinion and analysis

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