FORMER KGB colonel and MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia lie seriously ill in hospital after being attacked by a nerve agent in what UK police say is a case of attempted murder.
Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. who went to their aid when they collapsed at the weekend is also in intensive care – a reminder, if any is needed, of the risks ordinary police officers face every day in their efforts to keep us safe. We should be immensely thankful for their service.
Fingers are inevitably being pointed at Russia as being responsible for the attack in Salisbury – and with good reason.
Any street-corner thug can easily get their hands on knives, battery acid or even guns in the UK – but nerve agent?
The fact that manufacturing such toxic substances requires a sophisticated and risky process suggests state involvement at a high level, and given Skripal’s record of spying against Russia, Moscow is the number one suspect.
Meanwhile, in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin makes a statement that in the light of this week’s events can only be described as deeply sinister.
In a wide-ranging attack on the West, he said: “Those who serve us with poison will eventually swallow it and poison themselves.”
Did Putin know of events in England when he made his provocative remarks about “poisoning” his enemies? It is hard to believe he had not been briefed by his advisers.
Or perhaps it was just a very spooky coincidence? Either way, it is a timely wake-up call to the UK and other Western democracies of the growing threat posed by Russia.
Let us not forget the old Soviet Union crumbled, as socialist societies invariably do, when central command of the economy collapsed amid grinding poverty and brutal oppression 27 years ago.
It happens every single time.
But rather than embrace free-market capitalism that could have brought liberty and prosperity to the Russian people, the governing elite – the ‘nomenklatura’ and party apparatchiks – turned their country into a kleptocracy run by the Russian equivalent of the mafia.
Putin certainly acts like the Godfather. Friends of the president suddenly become unbelievably rich, while opponents are jailed and journalists who ask awkward questions are bumped off.
And dissidents and critics living abroad frequently come to a sticky end – for example Alexander Litvinenko, the man who coined the term “Mafia State” to describe Putin’s Russia, who was poisoned to death in the UK with radioactive polonium in 2006.
Since then Putin has become ever more emboldened – encouraged by the weakness of the US under the feeble presidency of Barack Obama.
Obama’s lack of leadership allowed Putin to insert Russia as a major player in the Middle East alongside that other enemy of liberty – Iran.
Now Russia feels free to flex its muscles not just in Syria, Ukraine and the Baltic states, but here in the UK too.
This week one of Britain’s top military intelligence officers, Sir Christopher Deverell, warned that Russian agents could bring Britain to its knees with cyber attacks targeting everything from power supplies to air traffic control systems.
When asked why the Russians would carry out such attacks, he replied: “They care only about what is in the interests of their elites. They don’t care about innocent people going about their lives. They are honestly quite capable of anything.”
It is tempting to see all of this as some kind of James Bond-style spy games but the consequences are very serious, not just to individuals like Mr Skripal but to the country as a whole.
If Russian hackers did succeed in gaining control of the National Grid and our electricity power plants, the result would be catastrophic.
We must hope our security services are keeping a beady eye on Russian activities and that Theresa May’s government has the courage to act robustly if any Russian diplomats are found to indulging in spying and other illegal activity, by expelling them from the UK.
And we need to maintain close co-operation in security matters with our friends in the EU after Brexit. Given this, is it too much to hope that President Donald Trump will stand up to Putin and restore the US as the dependable leader of the free world?