FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006 file photo, Sergei Skripal speaks to his lawyer from behind bars seen on a screen of a monitor outside a courtroom in Moscow. It has been reported on Monday, March 5, 2018 by the British media that Skripal is in critical condition after exposure to 'unknown substance' in English city of Salisbury. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)
Former Russian spy poisoned by nerve agent
02:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Sacha Koulaeva is a Director of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights. The opinions in this article belong to the author. This article has been updated to reflect news developments.

CNN  — 

The setting makes it all the more unsettling: a shopping center in a provincial town on a Sunday, the very epitome of humdrum English normality. Not a place for international espionage.

But that was where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were discovered last weekend, apparently poisoned with a nerve agent. Both remain critically ill, and a policeman who came into contact with them is also hospitalized.

Eventually, who was behind it and why will become clear.

But we can see already that no one is really shocked by what the British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called a “brazen and reckless act” on British soil. On Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament that the UK government now believes it is “highly likely” that the Russian state was involved in the attack.

The message everywhere is the same. It’s Russia – normal rules don’t apply.

The chief propagator of this message is the Russian government itself, which has carefully cultivated an image of unpredictability – from the moment Vladimir Putin first took charge.

People within Russia know how it works: The whole point of an authoritarian regime such as Vladimir Putin’s is to be arbitrary in its exercise of power.

Since resuming the presidency in 2012 (after a constitutionally mandated pause during which he allowed Dmitry Medvedev to play at President), Putin has built up an impressive legislative arsenal. My organization, the International Federation for Human Rights, has charted 50 new laws, designed to make dissent difficult to the point of impossible.

Questioning Russia’s presence in Crimea, for example, can lead to a charge of undermining the integrity of Russia, as happened to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, condemned to 20 years in Russian prison after a trial marked by torture allegations.

The acclaimed young filmmaker had been a vocal supporter of the Maidan movement in Ukraine and a vociferous critic of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

He was accused of plotting to blow up a Lenin memorial and the headquarters of Putin’s United Russia party in Crimea, a veritable checklist of Russian nationalist Shibboleths. The charges were widely seen as ludicrous. No matter: Sentsov languishes in jail; the message has been sent.

Members of the emergency services in green biohazard suits work to afix the tent over the bench where a man and a woman were found on March 4 in critical condition at The Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, southern England, on March 8, 2018 after the tent became detached. 
British detectives on March 8 scrambled to find the source of the nerve agent used in the "brazen and reckless" attempted murder of a Russian former double-agent and his daughter. Sergei Skripal, 66, who moved to Britain in a 2010 spy swap, is unconscious in a critical but stable condition in hospital along with his daughter Yulia after they collapsed on a bench outside a shopping centre on Sunday.
 / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL        (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Diners may have been exposed to nerve agent
01:25 - Source: CNN

Writing a pro-Ukraine poem can lead to charges of incitement to hatred, as Aleksandr Byvshev found. In 2015, the German language teacher was convicted after a local paper had criticized his poem “To Ukrainian Patriots.” Byshev was given 300 hours of community service and added to the official list of extremists. Inevitably, he also lost his job. Message received loud and clear.

But even without the dozens of laws it has created, Russia still finds new ways to punish.

Yuri Dmitriev, a historian who worked to uncover the mass graves of the Stalin era, was imprisoned last year on absurd charges of possessing indecent images of children. In fact, he had taken pictures of his daughter’s rash, as instructed by her doctor. The conviction was overturned earlier this year, but again, the message was clear.

The message is equally clear to Oyub Titiev, a human rights activist with Memorial Human Rights Center in Chechnya. Earlier this year Titiyev was arrested for cannabis use. His colleagues insist the charge is unlikely to the point of ludicrous.

Shortly after he was arrested, his organization’s office was mysteriously firebombed. His lawyer’s car was likewise attacked. On March 6, his pre-trial detention was extended until mid-May, even in spite of the attempted interjections of Grigory Yavlinsky and Ksenia Sobchak, two candidates in Russia’s upcoming Potemkin Presidential election, for which Putin is barely bothering to campaign.

Titiev’s predecessor, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered in 2009. There have been more: the renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya, politician Boris Nemstov, lawyer Stanislav Merkelov, young reporter Anastasia Baburova and, not that long ago in Britain, another ex-spy, Alexander Litvinenko. The Russian government denies any involvement in these killings.

Russia’s military adventures, in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and most recently in Eastern Ghouta send the same message: Russia will act as it wants, when it wants, where it wants. There are no rules for the Kremlin, except the ones it makes and breaks itself.

And still, Europe shrugs. “Well, that’s Russia,” even when the cruelty and arbitrary violence comes directly to its door.

And that’s why the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in a quiet corner of England intrigues us all, but no longer shocks anyone.