On a quiet Sunday in one of Britain’s most beautiful cathedral cities, a father and daughter were struck down by the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal are still lying stricken in hospital. A police officer who went to their aid fell into a critical condition. Another 35 people were forced to seek medical treatment simply because they were nearby when the nerve agent was released.
What happened in Salisbury on March 4 was a brazen attempt to murder civilians on British soil, endangering anyone, of any nationality, who chanced to be in the vicinity. If this could happen in Salisbury, the blunt truth is that an incident of this kind could happen anywhere.
Our scientists have identified the substance used against the Skripals as a Russian military-grade nerve agent known as “Novichok”. Today, only Russia combines a record of state-sponsored assassinations with an avowed motive for targeting Sergei Skripal, and history of producing of “Novichok” agents.
After the attack, the British Government gave the Kremlin an opportunity to explain if any of this substance had gone missing. But this request was contemptuously ignored, leaving the Government with no choice except to conclude that the Russian state was guilty of attempted murder in a British city, using a lethal nerve agent banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The incident in Salisbury falls into a pattern of the Kremlin’s lawless behaviour. Since 2014, Russia has annexed Crimea, ignited the flames of conflict in eastern Ukraine, hacked the German Bundestag and the Danish government and interfered in European elections.
Now they have gone so far as to use a banned nerve agent on European soil. The fact that more people are not in hospital in Salisbury is only down to luck; the perpetrators obviously did not care how many innocents they endangered.
Britain has responded by expelling 23 undeclared intelligence officers from the Russian Embassy in London. But the whole international community needs to stand together to uphold the rules on which the safety of every nation depends.
If we do not, then the Russian state will continue its pattern of dangerous and destructive behaviour.
Our quarrel is not with the Russian people, whose cultural and literary achievements shine down the centuries. We will never forget the fortitude shown by the Russian nation during the Second World War, nor our common alliance against Nazism.
But we all share an obligation to oppose the Kremlin’s ambition to divide and weaken the international community.
While Britain’s response has been robust, it has also remained true to our values as a liberal democracy that believes in the rule of law. Many Russians have made Britain their home. They abide by our laws and make an important contribution to our society and they remain welcome.
But every time the Russian state breaks international rules, it becomes more of a threat. This outrage took place in a peaceful provincial city in Britain; next time it could be in any country or in any town.
Tom Burn is the Acting High Commissioner at the British High Commission in Colombo