Its ambitions are to disrupt Britains politics, so why are the government and security services seemingly in denial about the threat?
Have you been to Salisbury? Have you visited the cathedral, whose 123-metre spire the two men identified as Russian military intelligence assassins claimed was the reason for their visit on two consecutive days in March this year?
Have you walked the streets where Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov carried a bottle of military-grade nerve agent in search of their victim, Sergei Skripal?
More to the point, has the former head of the Foreign Office, Boris Johnson, or his successor, Jeremy Hunt? I ask because to have spent any time in Salisbury, as I did for a number of years earlier this decade, is to be chilled by every new unlikely twist in this still unfolding story. To know the key locations intimately. To have walked hundreds of times past the bench where Sergei and Yulia Skripal collapsed and were found, unconscious, frothing at the mouth; the Mill pub where theyd just been for a drink; the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, the last place visited by Dawn Sturgess before she died.
Because to know Salisbury, a city that with its market square and medieval streets and Constable-inspiring views seems to be a distilled essence of all Englishness, is to grasp this story in a way that the government shows no sign of doing. Because its not just the tourist honey pot it at first seems its also the heart of the British military establishment.
This is where for nearly a century the British army has prepared for war. Its where it practised its battle skills for the First and Second World Wars, for the Falklands and the Gulf and Afghanistan though there have been garrisons here for much, much longer. Drive across the strange, otherworldly expanses of Salisbury Plain and its not Stonehenge that will surprise you, its the tanks, the camouflage nets, the live ammo rounds. The Salisbury Plain training area, the biggest military base in Britain, is the cornerstone of our national security.
A base that recently got even bigger: in 2015, the Ministry of Defence decided to relocate thousands of troops stationed in Germany back to Britain by 2020. Because klaxon the threat to Britain was no longer judged to come from the east. Thousands of homes and two primary schools were built to accommodate them in Tidworth, Larkhill and Bulford camps. And the officers? The generals, colonels, brigadiers? Theyre here, too. In the surrounding villages, in Salisbury itself, in the streets that Boshirov and Petrov walked down. These are their streets. This is where Dawn Sturgess died. On their watch. On Boris Johnsons watch.
But was he? Watching, that is. Because increasingly, it seems like the government, the intelligence services and the army have been asleep at the wheel; still are asleep at the wheel. What happened last week didnt involve tanks or live rounds. You could enact drills for months on Salisbury Plain and it wouldnt prepare you for a scenario in which two serving Russian military intelligence officers entered your country undetected and carried out an attack with a proscribed chemical weapon in broad daylight just miles from Porton Down, your own secretive chemical weapons laboratory.
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