RAMESH THAKUR. The Skripal affair: ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

On 4 March a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who came from Moscow on 3 March to visit her father, were found slumped unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre in Salisbury. Both remain in critical condition in hospital. Prime Minister Theresa May said the two had been poisoned with Novichok and pointed the finger of criminality at Russia. Moscow dismissed and mocked the accusation as entirely without foundation. The two countries have since carried out tit-for-tat expulsions of 27 diplomats each. 

The affair remains cloaked in mystery. British authorities and scientists are trying to figure out how, when, and where the poison was administered; why Skripal was a target; why now; why through such a high-risk spectacular method, and is the string of Skripal’s misfortunes in the recent past part of the same continuing story; his wife’s death from cancer in 2012, his brother’s death in a car accident in 2016, and his son’s death in St. Petersburg last year from liver cancer.

The problem is that on the one hand, the chain of circumstantial evidence does seem to lead back to Moscow regarding the means used. On the other hand, this does not make much logical sense with respect to either motive or opportunity when balanced against the cost and risks.

Skripal was only a peripheral figure in the murky world of international espionage. He was recruited by Britain’s MI6 in 1995, unmasked as a double agent in 2004, tried, convicted and imprisoned in 2006, and freed in a prisoner exchange and allowed to leave for Britain in 2010. He became a British citizen and lived in an inconspicuous but not a protected house with no attempt to conceal his identity, suggesting a lack of worry about his personal safety.

With good reason, for swapped spies are rarely targeted, not the least because it imperils future swaps. Having left Russia’s military intelligence service GRU in 1999, Skripal is not thought to have possessed valuable secrets that needed safeguarding against further disclosure.

Russia has been alleged to have made these nerve agents in the past. Alleged whistleblower Vil Mirzayanov, who lives in exile in the US, ‘exposed’ the program in 1991. He insists only Russia knows how to make Novichok and doubts the ability of any nonstate actor to weaponize it. Russia also has past form. In 2006 another former spy, Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned in London with polonium.

Yet because of insufficient evidence about its very existence, Novichok is not included in the list of precursors prohibited by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). This despite its inspectors having full access to all known Russian chemical weapons facilities for over a decade, including those identified by Mirzayanov. Last year OPCW inspectors completed the destruction of nearly 40,000 metric tonnes of Russian chemical weapons.

Would Vladimir Putin really risk badly damaging relations, already frayed, with the West over a minor figure just to up the margin of his anticipated victory in the presidential election on 18 March (which he duly won with over 70 percent votes)? Russia’s ‘sarcasm, contempt and defiance’-tinged response to the charge of being behind the attack has inflamed relations even more.

There are legitimate questions to be asked of London also. Russia’s call for proof of its complicity and the offer to join the investigation was summarily dismissed. It is not normal practice to include the chief suspect in the team tasked with investigating a murder. And independent OPCW scientific experts have now been provided with samples by the British authorities.

Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan (2002–04), makes two pertinent observations:

  • Until now neither Porton Down – which hosts the UK’s only chemical weapons facility – nor the OPCW were convinced that Novichoks even exist;
  • Not possessing a Russian sample for benchmark comparison, the UK government has no ‘fingerprint’ information that can confidently attribute this substance to Russia.

Conscious of the political pressure because of which the Iraq dossier was ‘sexed up’ to justify the 2003 war, Porton Down agreed to the compromise formulation ‘of a type developed by Russia’. This precise formula was used by May in Parliament, by the UK in the UN Security Council, and has been repeated by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in public statements and interviews. In other words, they are not claiming that the nerve agent was made in Russia, nor that it can be made only in Russia.

In a rare and very carefully crafted joint statement on 15 March, the leaders of UK, France, Germany, and the US declared (my emphases):

We… abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018.

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.

The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation.

Thus Russia’s ‘highly likely’ guilt is based on deduction, not hard proof (which does not necessarily invalidate the inference).

It’s conceivable that Russia did have a stockpile of Novichok and had negligently lost control of the military-grade nerve agent. May offered this way out for Moscow in her parliamentary statement on 12 March, but Russia refused the opportunity to provide an explanation based on such a scenario. This despite the fact that Leonid Rink, a chemist who worked in a Soviet-era chemical weapons facility and helped to develop Novichok, admitted to investigators after the killing of a Russian banker in 1995 that he sold capsules of the deadly toxin to Chechen criminals based in Moscow. (Members of the Chechen mafia with ties to pro-Moscow leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, have been involved in several high-profile killings of Putin opponents in recent years, including the assassination of leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015.) Rink also argues that if Russian agents had been behind the attack the Skripals would not still be alive.

Jeremy Corbyn expressed outrage at the ‘appalling… barbaric and beyond reckless’ attacks on Britain’s streets, but was pilloried for warning against the temptation to ‘rush way ahead of the evidence’. But even he fell into the trap of misreading what the government has said: ‘the nerve agent used has been identified as of original Russian manufacture’ (my emphasis).

Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of The Australian suggests that ‘hyper-nationalist’ Putin’s motive might be to spread fear among his expatriate Russian critics: you cannot run and hide, we will come after and get you; and also to humiliate Britain by demonstrating its impotence. This doesn’t add up. If Skripal’s offence was considered that grave, he would have been executed after arrest and conviction instead of being exchanged for Russian spies caught in the West and then assassinated on foreign soil. The added risks of the operation going wrong in the UK and the damage to relations and international reputation are significantly higher.

In the poisoned political atmosphere since the WMD big lie of the Iraq war in 2003, it is very difficult to convince a deeply cynical and sceptical global public of claims of criminality by rival major powers without clear evidence to back them up. Call it collateral damage of being found out once: credibility once lost is hard to rebuild.

Professor Ramesh Thakur, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

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8 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. The Skripal affair: ‘curiouser and curiouser’.

  1. jfoley says:

    Thanks to RAMESH THAKUR – interesting analysis. ‘Curiouser’ is a great frame…
    1.Earlier this year (Jan 2018) Def Sec Williamson caused a ‘stir’ by suggesting that Russia could cause thousands and thousands of deaths by ‘interfering’ in critical infrastructure (energy) but the MoD cleared him of leaking any sensitive info.
    2.In a wider frame the Skripal event (Se) can be seen as highlighting tensions between MoD and Treasury. MoD runs a pretty healthy deficit and a National Audit Office rpt into the 180 (GPB) billion procurement and support budget highlighted at least 21(GBP) million over commitment. treasury used this info to extract reductions in spends. It also highlighted cultural issues in budget overruns by MoD practices and pers.
    3. Williamson is running the Def Modernisation Prog = greatly increased mil spend across all platforms. The 2010 Strat Def and Security Rev saw the CBRN capability axed and currently shared between Royal Tanks and RAF.
    4. A side bar is the constant pressure from Mattis to NATO for the 2% spend increase. NATO Sec-Gen Stoltenberg seems committed and is in an enforcing kind of mood. France has also announced increased spending across defence platforms.
    5. After Se May announced the creation of the National Security Comms Unit to combat ‘fake news’ with an emphasise on Russian interference.
    6. But the 48(GBP)million spend on the new chemical weapons defence centre allows defence to continue the ‘winning’ in the Defence v Treasury stoush.
    7. These two spends fit into the required movement detailed in the National Security and Capability Review.
    8. One of the weirdest aspects of the response to highly likely deployed nerve agent was the ‘advice’ from Public Health England to civilians who may have been exposed via The Mill or Zizzi. But there was a lot of weird to go round.
    9. With news that Def Sec Gavin Williamson’s patch is set to see a reported (murdoch so an unreliable source warning attached to this figure) increase of at least 800 (GBP) million which means that if he is to challenge May for the leadership he can narrate his way into strong, secure territory quite easily.
    10. Thanks again – thought provoking and interesting read. (all figs qted subject to recheck and stand tbc)

  2. Phillip O'Reilly says:

    The simple fact is that Skripal was a minor figure, even as an asset for British intelligence his treason was opportunistic and for greed. Unless he was actively engaged in a current anti-Russian plot it is preposterous to claim the Russian government would assassinate him now.
    May and Johnsons’ strident claim that there is no other plausible explanation is complete nonsense. There are a number of realistic scenarios that are possible. None of which, like the British governments claims, have any standing until the proof and evidence of what occurred is brought forth.
    To implement sanctions so quickly before any substantive evidence is extraordinary and seems motivated by a reflexive anti-Russian animus. The serious worry is that other very serious agendas are being pursued under cover of this event.
    Namely, building a case to strike at the Syrian government as it consolidates its victory over the rebel and Islamist forces, the Russians present a formidable obstacle to those schemes. Sanctioning Russia to eliminate it as competitor for US gas supply and attempt to weaken Russia generally.

  3. Simon Warriner says:

    Further to my last, I just came across this analysis of what might be driving the madness.

    http://www.voltairenet.org/article200375.html

    Theresa May’s Foreign Policy, including this : On 13 November last, Theresa May seized the opportunity offered by the Prime Minister’s annual speech at Lord Mayor’s Banquet to give an overview of the new British strategy after the Brexit [1]. The United Kingdom intends to re-establish its Empire (Global Britain) by promoting international free exchange with the help of China [2] and ejecting Russia from international instances with the help of its military allies – the United States, France, Germany, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

    Retrospectively, all the elements we can see today were mentioned in this speech, even if we didn’t immediately understand it at the time.

  4. Simon Warriner says:

    I agree that the rush to judgement based on nothing substantial is unacceptable but it is nothing new, especially from the Brits and the Yanks.

    a bigger issue is this: what is the end game of all this propaganda? Those responsible are doing what they are putting a lot of effort into doing for a reason, what is it? It seems to me that they are trying to set the scene so that Russia can be loaded with the guilt for starting WW3. A war, incidentally, Putin has recently pointed out they stand a very high chance of loosing. Why would that be seen as a worthwhile thing to do?

    We live in dangerous times. Possibly the most dangerous times ever. And not a word from our mainstream media about that issue.

  5. Tony Ryan says:

    Thank you, James O’Neill and Tony Kevin, for your very astute and well-informed contributions, which align convincingly with your parallel colleagues elsewhere in the world.

    I find it to be a comfort to know there are such minds in Australia, for so long bereft of knowledgeable comment that is guided by actual evidence.

  6. Tony Kevin says:

    Very good piece, thank you Ramesh and John. I would also add this.

    There is strong possible motive and opportunity for the attack on the Skripals being a false flag operation initiated by a Western agency or organisation, and intended to both infuriate and incriminate Russia: to lock a wavering President Trump into a firm anti-Putin and anti-Russia Western alliance position ; to generate EU support and solidarity with Theresa May’s government , which now just might by some miracle be able to use this newfound sympathy to wind back or delay Brexit. Nothing like a common enemy to cement a weakening alliance.

    A dangerously worsened relationship with Russia would not bother potential planners of such a strategy, who play hard. There would be both motive and opportunity . It is highly probable that Western agencies would have undeclared stocks of Novichuk or similar substance, collected in the early post-Soviet years.

    This reasoning is strengthened by the very odd and provocative British conduct since the Skripals were discovered at death’s door . A initially very cautious form of words, forced on May reportedly by the staff at the nearby Porton Down Chemical Weapons laboratory , that it was probable that the agent was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia in the Soviet period., but that this would take specialist staff weeks to investigate properly. May gradually ramped up the public presumption of Russian deliberate attempted murder or negligence, and Boris Johnson went even further, building the UK public acceptance that Russia was lying and must be to blame. Investigators from OPCW did not arrive in Britain to collect samples until 20 March, two weeks after the incident. . . The head of OPCW announced it will take up to three weeks to produce findings. Meanwhile, British government and UK and US media escalated the language, seemingly indifferent to the rapidly worsening climate of East-West relations. Putin finally reacted, after his election victory was confirmed, with very harsh (for him) anti-British language. Diplomacy had now been weaponised on both sides , and the signalling was now angry and contemptuous. Reciprocal diplomatic expulsions – started by May – necessarily followed the British ultimatum which Russia found insulting.

    It is a dangerous moment, with national prestige now heavily engaged on both sides . Chances of WW3 by provocation or miscalculation have increased . I hope the massive expulsions by Western countries of Russian diplomats – well over 100 now – may diminish the mounting tension, but they may not. It could get much worse before it maybe starts to get better.

    All this was foreseeable but in my view, agencies in London and Washington deliberately orchestrated this bizarre sequence of events. A risky game.

  7. michael lacey says:

    Your innocent until proven guilty but in the world of propaganda and politics it is in reverse!

  8. James O'Neill says:

    The hyperbole surrounding this incident is more than just “curious”. This morning Australia joined the chorus by expelling two Russian diplomats, with Bishop and Turnbull making a joint statement that echoed that of the UK and the USA. There are a large number of problems with these allegations and with respect, some factual errors in this article. I will mention only some given that this is a comment, not an article.
    1. May and Johnson’s statements are not supported by the evidence.
    2. Direct contradictions have come from, inter alia, Salisbury Hospital and the UK High Court.
    3. The OPCW Convention provides a mechanism for dealing with allegations of the type made by the UK. (Article 9 (2). The UK was in breach of those obligations in its absurd claim for Russia to, in effect, prove its innocence within 36 hours. The Convention allows 10 days for a response.
    4. Russia asked for the evidence, again as it is entitled to do under the Convention, which the British ignored. They have since capitulated and the OPCW technical team are now conducting the tests. They say it is at least two weeks before they will have a result.
    5. Novichok type agents were experimented with at an old Soviet planet in Uzbekistan. It was dismantled by the Americans under OPCW supervision years ago.
    6. The OPCW has certified that Russian CW stocks were destroyed and there is no evidence of any hidden stores other than those allowed for under the Convention (and also held by the UK, the US and others on the same basis.
    7. The claim that chemical agents have not been used for more than 70 years is false. The UK government carried out experiments on its own population and on that of its colonies.
    8. Novichok was successfully synthesised for the first time very recently by Iran, working with OCPW inspectors. There is no other known program.
    9. There is no evidence of Russian responsibility for the death of Litvinenko, as the UK Inquiry had to concede. I published an analysis of this in Dissident Voice in February 2016.
    10. The actions of the UK, US, Australia and others jeopardises the investigation by claiming to have a result before the evidence is available. Some of us still believe in the old fashioned notions of where the burden of proof lies, the presumption of innocence, not prejudging an issue, and having actual evidence as opposed to politically motivated wild accusations as the basis for judgment.

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