My own take on the CBW attack in Salisbury is that it has three objectives and plays to three distinct audiences. The first objective was to carry put a live-firing exercise to see if the Novichok agent could be used effectively by deploying it against a civilian leading a normal life in a provincial city and, if so, by what method of malign administration.
Second, the attack would answer the important tactical question about how well, or not, local services would react to identify, respond, contain and attribute the agent. It’s the aftermath that the Russians will be studying right now: how well are we handling this attack and what effect is it having on public and government opinion in the UK?
Third, it is a drama intended to play to three principal audiences in particular. The most immediate of these is the UK government: a warning reminder that despite having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain would find it difficult to undertake any kind of serious retaliatory action or military might.
Then there are the countries bordering Mother Russia, including the Baltics: a demonstration, if any were needed, of the power just over the eastern horizon and its willingness to ignore international norms and agreements concerning state use of CBW capability.
Third audience: the Russian people who are, by all accountns, happy to see any kind of force used to bolster Russia’s standing in the world, and used dramatically. Coupled with cyber-warfare, this is a package of threats designed to warn, and warn decisively. Welcome to the new age of state hostility, symbolised by an old man and his daughter slumped, barely alive, on a park bench in Wiltshire.