Could the Syrian war lead to a US-Russia conflict?
01:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

CNN  — 

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in the quiet English cathedral city of Salisbury on March 4.

In the 24 hours that followed, public confusion about their symptoms gave way to the harsh reality that the father and daughter were likely the victims of an evil plot to poison them with a nerve agent.

A week later, on the 12th of March, UK Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed what had already begun circulating in British media: intelligence suggested that Skripal, a former Russian spy and double agent for UK intelligence services, had likely been poisoned by Russia.

May told British parliamentarians: “It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok.’”

She gave Russia 48 hours to respond to two questions, or else the UK would take action.

Two days later, on March 14, May had still not had an official Russian response – although by then she was being snowed under by an avalanche of Russian denials, innuendo and accusations that Moscow was being falsely blamed.

She expelled 23 Russian diplomats believed to be undercover intelligence operatives.

The UN’s chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was invited in to investigate.

Two weeks later, May’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke of a “torrent of obfuscation” from Russia, saying that “the Foreign Office has so far counted 24 such ludicrous fibs.”

But what is now becoming clear is that long before Johnson spoke – and even before May expelled the Russian diplomats – Moscow was already executing its real response.

It would not have been easy to spot at the time because it had nothing directly to do with the Skripals. Yet in hindsight it stands out like a red rag to a bull.

Perhaps its author might have been the clue: Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Military Chief of General Staff, the brains behind the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine.”

Believed by many analysts to be Russia’s smartest general of his generation, Gerasimov is the architect of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare.

He strategized that the state could achieve its goals by combining military, cyber, diplomatic, economic and cultural tools – the same grab bag of tactics that presaged Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine and morphed into its meddling in the US election.

On March 13, the day after Theresa May blamed Russia for Skripal’s poisoning, Gerasimov announced that he had discovered a US plan to fake a chemical weapons attack against civilians in Eastern Ghouta and then blame Assad’s army.

It was coincidentally also the day after US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley blamed Russia for stalling a ceasefire in Syria.

02 Trump Putin split 0407
Things Trump has said about Putin
01:27 - Source: CNN

Only the keenest and perhaps most cynical observer of Russian propaganda might have thought at the time that the general’s prediction of a chemical attack would actually come to pass.

That same seasoned observer might now be concluding that back then in early March, Gerasimov was actually employing his own asymmetrical doctrine to the Skripal issue.

What has now become clear is the full horror of last weekend’s chemical weapons attack, with children, women and men dead in the basements where they were hiding.

International condemnation of Bashar al-Assad and Russia has followed, with diplomats from the US, the UK, France, Australia and other countries clear in their minds that the Assad regime was responsible.

The debate at the UN has since been blocked by Russia, balking at the independence of an investigation that would find out exactly who was responsible.

The OPCW, so vital in the Skripal case, has since been drawn in to reviewing the Syria attack – and almost all mention of Russia’s culpability in Skripal’s poisoning has disappeared from view.

In asymmetric terms, Gerasimov seems to have pulled off the impossible: diverting attention, albeit at huge potential cost.

Yet Russia’s top general had another trick in his pocket back in March: he announced that if the US were to launch an attack on Syria, Russia would target the American missiles and the carriers firing them.

On Wednesday this week, within hours of Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon repeating Gerasimov’s March statement about targeting US missiles and carriers, US President Donald Trump entered the fray with a Twitter fusillade, loud enough to drown out any talk of Skripal by the cacophony responding to Trump’s apparent declaration of strikes.

Even Gerasimov may have been surprised at the way Russia has buried its British problem. But now, it appears Moscow may be left with a far bigger and more dangerous issue on its hands.

Yet Gerasimov may have a solution for that too: huge numbers of Russian troops and heavy armor have been sighted heading to Russia’s border with Ukraine, where Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists are reportedly increasing artillery exchanges with Ukrainian forces.

With his asymmetrical doctrine, Gerasimov appears to be armed with an array of patches for any holes in Vladimir Putin’s strategies.