Russia's poisoning of a former spy in Britain is part of a Kremlin strategy to divide the West by conducting covert operations and then fomenting doubt and disagreement over who's responsible, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said.
A day after more than two dozen governments around the world announced the explusion of 144 diplomats over the poisoning, Mattis told reporters in Washington on March 27 that Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials of responsibility for what he called the "attempted murder" of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury cannot be taken seriously.
Mattis said the Salisbury incident involved the "pretty obvious" use of a "weapon of mass destruction," which the British government has identified as the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, developed by Russia during the Cold War.
It was part of a pattern seen in Russia's actions, Mattis said, starting in Ukraine in 2014, where he said Moscow sent armed men without insignias into Crimea and has provided fighters and weapons under cover to Ukrainian separatists.
Mattis said Russia's subterfuge continued through covert efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"They take the insignia off soldiers' uniforms and they go into Crimea. They say they have nothing to do with what's going on with the separatists in eastern Ukraine," Mattis added.
"I'm not sure how they can say that with a straight face," he said, but "they're doing things that they believe are deniable."
"And so they're trying to break the unity of the Western alliance, NATO," he said, by promoting doubt and disputes over who is responsible.
NATO joined more than two dozen governments in putting up a united front to reject the Russian tactics on March 27. The total of 144 in announced expulsions of Russian staff from embassies and missions worlwide dwarfed similar measures taken during Cold War spying disputes.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the expulsions would send a message to Russia that there are "costs and consequences for their unacceptable pattern of behavior."
British leaders hailed the sweeping moves as a potential "turning point," while Russia asserted that it was the result of "colossal" pressure by the United States and vowed to respond.
"Never before have so many countries come together to expel Russian diplomats," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in The Times, calling it "a "blow from which Russian intelligence will need many years to recover."
"The Western alliance took decisive action...against the Kremlin's reckless ambitions," and its tactics of disinformation and denial, he wrote.
"There was a time when this tactic of sowing doubt might have been effective, but no one is fooled any more. I believe yesterday was a moment when the cynicism of the propaganda machine was exposed for all to see," Johnson said.
Stoltenberg said NATO would remain "open to dialogue" with Russia and Mattis said Russia still "has the potential to be a partner with Europe."
But the Pentagon chief added that Moscow instead "has chosen to be a strategic competitor, even to the point of reckless activity."