Why the Russian Chemical Attack in England Is a Big Deal For America

Something important is unfolding between England and Russia — and it's not good news for anyone, particularly America.

On March 4, a former Russian double agent by the name of Sergei Skripal was found with his daughter, Yulia Skripal, slumped on a park bench in Salisbury, England. The two were victims of chemical weapon poisoning that affected 38 people in the surrounding area — and which could continue affecting people in the area for years to come, since there is no cure for the substance.

The substance responsible for Skripal, his daughter, and Salisbury residents' severe poisoning comes from a group of nerve agents called Novichok, a rare Russian chemical weapon about which little is known. The weapons are made from commercially available materials and were developed in the 1980s during the Cold War in order to evade Western detection . . . at the same time the US and Russia vowed to dismantle and destroy existing chemical weapons. Novichok chemicals were created in secret and supposedly many similar weapons now exist.

English intelligence pinned the poisoning on Russia on March 12. In response to the attack, Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats from England on March 14. These ejections marked the most since 1985, when England similarly sent a high number of Russian diplomats out of the country during the Cold War. May noted to Parliament that Moscow reacted to the recent event with "sarcasm, contempt, and defiance" and inspired her to take action.

The matter gets complicated when considering the United States' handling of these events. After England associated the poisoning with Russia, the White House did not immediately offer a formal comment. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did condemn the use of poison — but did not address Russia's role in the attack — on March 12.

Once England's expulsion of diplomats occurred on March 14, the White House, along with Sanders, noted its support of England's response. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley echoed these sentiments, offering a firm rebuke of Russia. On March 15, the United States, France, and Germany formally backed England on the claims of Russian responsibility by way of a joint statement.

"Soon as we get the facts straight...we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be"--Trump on the poison attack in England, which British officials blame on Russia.

— Cathleen Decker (@cathleendecker) March 13, 2018

Most concerning in the absence of support for this condemnation is President Donald Trump, who has avoided holding Russia directly responsible or supporting the actions of May. Trump commented on March 13 that it "sounds to me like they believe it was Russia." But he pivoted to give a caveat: "As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be." Since blame has been attributed to Russia, Trump still has yet to comment — and his reluctance to do so is palpable, particularly when paired with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's firing hours after he criticized Russia for the chemical attack.

While the complicated matter may seem foreign and abstract, the issue highlights ongoing, obvious issues between America and Russia, making Trump's failure to react all the more concerning. The Salisbury event is quickly unfolding in various directions — Russia denied involvement, called May's actions "insane," and is seeking a swift response to the expulsion while the United States is now imposing sanctions on Russian groups in reaction to election attacks — and is adding to an international rising tension that is impossible to ignore.