CAVAN HOGUE. What Australian interests are involved in the Skripal poisoning?

Mar 29, 2018

By signing up to sanctions against Russia along with 22 European and North American countries Australia has made it very clear to the 100 countries that did not sign up where we think we belong. We seem to be telling our Asian neighbours that Dr Mahathir was right to say that Australia is a European outpost in Asia. We prefer NATO to ASEAN?  NATO has rushed to judgement without waiting for all the information to come in. Certainly, Russia has to be the prime suspect but there are many unanswered questions about the whole matter. Putin is capable of ordering the murder if he felt it was in his interests and Russia has the capability to do it but does it follow that they did? We don’t know one way or the other. After Iraq, British intelligence cannot be guaranteed to be right and so far we have not seen a smoking gun. 

The arguments put forward by this latest coalition of the willing tend to be oversimplified. Putin is the bad guy and it is all his fault so he must be punished.  It is somehow lumped in with MH17, Crimea and Ukraine which have nothing to do with this kind of operation. Russian assassinations are surgical and competent. Of course Britain, the US and others have carried out similar assassinations but we don’t wish to know about that.

Now Russia is pretty clearly the Prime Suspect but as any devotee of British TV crime shows knows, the prime suspect is not always the guilty one. We should examine motive, capability and alibi. Like all good detectives, we should wait for the forensic evidence from the relevant international body before jumping to conclusions. So, if we look at capability first then it is clear that Russia has the capability to poison people and that Putin would happily order such an action if he felt it was in his interests to do so. What we don’t know is whether Putin did order it or if someone else did it thinking to please him like the Chechens did to Boris Nemtsov and the Egyptians to Pompey.  Not do we know whether the poison used was Russian or came directly from Russia. We are still awaiting the forensic evidence. The British claim to have such evidence but remember these are the folks that told us Saddam Hussein had WMDs. So, in short, Russia remains the prime suspect and Putin may well have known about it or ordered it but we don’t have a smoking gun.

Motive is trickier. Why would Putin or anyone else do it and especially why attack the daughter. If it were a Russian Government agency they would surely be more efficient. Why the daughter and why use something which could, as it did, injure British people who have nothing to do with Russia.  The history of Russian assassinations has been one of simple and efficient disposal of the target rather than this messy operation. It stretches credibility to argue that this act was designed to teach the British a lesson about something general.  Skripal was in England after a spy swap with Moscow and it is generally accepted in the intelligence business that you leave such people alone lest the whole swapping business is ruined. So why now?  Perhaps Skripal had gone back into business for MI6 which might give a motive? We don’t know. There is, therefore, no clear motive which doesn’t mean there isn’t one but just that if there is we don’t know what it is. There have been a number of conspiracy theories but none of the other theories have come up with clear evidence to support their case either.

Alibi, in this case, is not relevant, so why has the West reacted like it has. Was NATO spoiling for a fight with Russia or did the British Government need a cause to hide its problems and perhaps also to try to claw back some of the ground that Brexit lost with its European neighbours? We can only guess. The American reaction has been perhaps unsurprising but smacks of overreaction. Some wise Americans are concerned and the following quote from Tom Pickering in the New York Times is relevant. He is a man I knew when in harness and for whom I have considerable respect.

“This is not the Cuban missile crisis,” Tom Pickering, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and the U.N., added. “But there are a lot of lessons from the Cuba crisis that we should pay attention to, such as overreaction, overreliance on nuclear weapons, talking about them as if they’re something anybody can use, and a clear sense that, unless adults are truly in charge of the relationship, it can get worse without control.” He warned that the United States and its allies need a strategy with a combination of pushback and messaging through diplomatic channels at the highest level to find ways to avoid real peril. “At the moment, it’s a game of chicken with no off-ramp,” Pickering told me. “And we need to be looking at the off-ramp.”

It remains to be seen what conclusions the Chemical Weapons Commission will come up with. As with the rocket that brought down a Malaysian airliner the fact that something originated in Russia doesn’t necessarily mean it was the Russians that used it.  Russian denials don’t tell us anything because they would deny it if they did it and if they did not. Whether any other evidence will come to light is uncertain. The UK has not made its evidence public nor shown it to Russia. The Russians have offered to cooperate with international investigators but we don’t know how far that would go. It is at least something that could be explored but it seems that the West has made up its mind.

So what about Australia? Both the Government and the Opposition have made it clear that they feel it necessary to stand together with our traditional British allies, NATO and the USA. One always needs to be suspicious of governments that try to take the moral high ground! However, Julie Bishop said on the 7.30 Report that if Russia didn’t use the poison then it was not controlling the material which suggests she may have had some doubts about the evidence and wants to avoid another Iraq humiliation. The media observes that 22 other countries have signed up to sanctions but make no mention of the more than a hundred countries that have not. We don’t get the views of our neighbours and the ASEAN countries whom we so assiduously courted a couple of weeks ago. It would be interesting to know what China and India think. The message is clear. We are part of the West or to put it another way history triumphs over geography. As we did in the case of Iraq, we have accepted intelligence from our great and powerful friends without asking too many questions. Are we getting into another Iraq or is Russia really a threat to Australian interests? What retaliation might we suffer? I don’t imagine anyone is trembling in the Kremlin over Australian sanctions so they may focus on the major players but we should expect something. The main point that comes out of all this is that Australia has put itself firmly in the European camp without explaining how this serves Australian interests. We have consulted North Americans and Europeans but there is no sign that we have consulted Asian countries.

Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat who was Ambassador to Russia and the USSR.

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