Lying about chemical weapons

Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused foreign secretary Boris Johnson of being less than entirely honest about who poisoned former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

Labour has called for an investigation into whether Boris Johnson “misled” the public over Russian involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier implied the foreign secretary had exaggerated the findings of the UK’s defence laboratory, Porton Down. […]

Labour said in an interview given to German TV last month, Mr Johnson said that “people from Porton Down” were “absolutely categorical”, adding: “I asked the guy myself. I said ‘are you sure?’, and he said ‘there’s no doubt’.”

But on Tuesday the Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the Novichok nerve agent used, although it did say it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor”.

Labour called on the prime minister to launch an investigation into whether Mr Johnson broke the ministerial code.

A state actor. Hmm. That’s a far cry from pinning the blame on Putin, as so many are keen to do.

The truth about these matters is often hard to establish. What is clear, in this case, is that we simply do not know who poisoned Skripal, and with what motive.

Naturally, that won’t stop the absurd saber-rattling, mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, and crazed ramping up of tensions with the world’s number two nuclear power. Why let rational thought get in the way of that?

On the Skripal poisoning

Richard Sakwa, a Russia expert at the University of Kent, has some thoughts about the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

These are the circumstances and the consequences, but the whole affair raises many troubling questions. Is the case so clear-cut that the authorities in Moscow, and possibly Putin personally, ordered the assassination? After all, Skripal, a former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer who had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI6, and had then worked as a double agent, had been part of a prisoner swap in 2010, and had lived openly in Salisbury every since. Why would the Russian authorities want to kill him? How would it benefit them, especially in conditions where relations are so bad anyway? If they wanted him killed, there are easier ways – unless of course it was for the demonstration effect, and to alienate the British government even more. These may well be considerations among parts of the Russian security elite, angry at Skripal’s betrayal of a reputed 350 Russian agents. As well as motive, there is also the question of timing. Why now, just weeks before the Russian presidential election of 18 March, when Putin won by a landslide for a fourth term. […]

Let us assess the various theories in turn. The official British government position, outlined by prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on 12 March, is that either the Russian state was responsible, or that the authorities had lost control over the nerve agent, identified now as part of the Novichok family of nerve agents. These, May insisted, were the only two plausible explanations. Later, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 16 March alleged that Putin had personally ordered the killing, and then on 18 March he told the British media that Russia had secretly accumulated chemical and biological weapons. He hinted that the British government had information that the order had come directly from the Kremlin. […]

Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases [Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berzovsky and Boris Nemtsov] has been demonstrated to lead back to the Kremlin. In fact, the argument could be made that these deaths, and others, were ‘provocations’; in the sense that they reflected factional fighting in Moscow and the regions (notably Chechnya), and were ways of signalling threats to the Kremlin to force it to adopt certain policies and not others. […]

Unless serious evidence to the contrary emerges, I would be deeply sceptical that Putin took a personal interest in killing Skripal. What would he gain! Such a version only makes sense if two conditions hold: that Putin has nothing better to do than go around killing opponents who long ago have lost any relevance; and the Russian state is out to subvert the West. As the British foreign office put it in a propaganda video, Russia was out to ‘undermine world order’. This of course is the version repeated in the British mass media, including from some formerly respectable newspapers – but it is nonsense. […]

Novichok [the nerve agent] had been developed in Shikhany in central Russia, and according to the whistle-blower Vil Mirzayanov, it was then tested in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s controls of weapons stores had been notoriously lax, and social media have repeatedly suggested that some could have found its way to Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The material could have been smuggled out of the country by unknown parties, possibly criminals. It is also not too difficult to reconstitute the agent in a laboratory. Britain sent a sample of the Salisbury material to the OPCW, but Russia also requested a sample, as it is entitled to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The British refused.

And here is an excerpt from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

A number of things jump out at me here:

  • The PM did not conclusively blame the Russian government, but rather said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. The statement allows for the possibility that Russia had simply lost control of its stockpile of Novichok. That’s, again, the official position of the British government. By that logic, some other actor could have conceivably carried out the attack, without Putin’s knowledge.
  • Sakwa offers an additional four or five possible explanations for the attack, most of which seem plausible to me.
  • The French government was initially skeptical of the idea of Russian culpability, accusing May of “fantasy politics.” That’s pretty interesting.
  • The British summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an explanation for the poisoning, but refused to provide the Russians with samples of the nerve agent so they could conduct their own investigation. This is a bit like asking someone when he stopped beating his wife. Imagine how this would be perceived by the Russian side if, in fact, they did not order the attack.
  • The question of motive remains unanswered. It’s hard to see what Putin would have to gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and thereby significantly ramping up tensions with NATO. That would not appear to be in Putin’s or Russia’s interests. It could be argued that Putin wanted to “send a message” — but then, what message? Don’t mess with us? If so, the ploy has backfired miserably, as Britain seems to have decided to mess with Russia a whole lot more.

It’s very easy to give in to hysteria on this issue, and jump to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Given the stakes involved — potential war with a nuclear power — I would suggest that it’s very dangerous to do so.

Headlines that make me guffaw

Actually, the sound was more like a loud, spontaneous “PFFFFT,” but I don’t think there’s a verb for that.

“Xinhua scoffs at bickering West”

Xinhua News Agency attacked Western democracy as divisive and confrontational and praised the harmony and cooperative nature of the Chinese system on the eve of the congress.

“Unlike competitive, confrontational Western politics, the CPC and non- Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve the people’s standard of living,” it said.

Did you know that there are other parties besides the Communist Party of China (CPC)? Indeed, there are eight: Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK); China Democratic League (CDL); China Democratic National Construction Association (CDNCA); China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD); Chinese Peasants’ [yes] and Workers’ Democratic Party (CPWDP); China Zhi Gong Party (CZGP); Jiusan Society; and the Taiwan Democratic Self-Governing League (TDSGL).

They compete, of course, in free and fair elections.

Xinhua said that under the leadership of the party, Chinese-style democracy has never been in better shape.

“China has absolutely no need to import the failing party political systems of other countries,” it said.

“After several hundred years, the Western model is showing its age. It is high time for profound reflection on the ills of a doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few.”

All snark aside, the potshots at Western democracy aren’t even that far off. It’s just that Chinese state media has a way of phrasing things that’s literally funny. I mean that as a complement.

“Doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few” – This is good rhetoric.

Nothing surpasses this description of Britain by the Global Times, though:

The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study. This has gradually become the habitual thought of the Chinese people.

It occurs to me that we may be living through a Golden Age of international trolling.

Well, that answers that

From Hong Kong rag The Standard:

When news broke that British politician and human rights activist Benedict Rogers was refused entry at Hong Kong International Airport, I suspected our Immigration Department didn’t make the decision, but carried out an order from a higher authority.

It’s now perfectly clear the decision had come down from Beijing. It’s simply stunning.

Rogers was quoted by an internet news website as saying the Chinese embassy back home in London had warned him via a third party, after it learned about his plan to visit the former Crown colony. The third party reportedly relayed the embassy’s concern that Rogers may visit the student leaders serving jail sentences for their leading roles in protests. Later, he was told his SAR trip would impair the Sino-British relationship, so he would be denied entry.

The Foreign Ministry was straightforward about it. Yesterday, the blunt statement by a spokeswoman was basically related to two points: one, Beijing retains the authority to decide who can come to Hong Kong; and two, Rogers was barred because of fears he would intervene with the SAR’s internal affairs and judicial system. In hindsight, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response prior to the spokeswoman’s statement appeared to be redundant. […]

The issue is that while the decision was made by some policymakers in Beijing, it did more harm than good to Hong Kong, because one of the SAR’s greatest assets is its international reputation, which makes the place distinct from other mainland cities.

The move was like throwing rocks into waters that Hong Kong’s leader is struggling to calm.

I think a little bit of reciprocity is in order. Is there any reason, at this point, not to respond in kind by having the next visitor from the PRC politely turned back at Heathrow customs?

From Yiwu to London

China’s rail empire expands:

China has launched a direct rail freight service to London, as part of its drive to develop trade and investment ties with Europe.

China Railway already runs services between China and other European cities, including Madrid and Hamburg.

The train will take about two weeks to cover the 12,000 mile journey and is carrying a cargo of clothes, bags and other household items.

It has the advantage of being cheaper than air freight and faster than sea.

The proliferation of routes linking China and Europe is part of a strategy launched in 2013 aimed at boosting infrastructure links with Europe along the former Silk Road trading routes.

The old Silk Road didn’t go all the way to London

Incidentally, the route starts in the city of Yiwu, Zhejiang province, which I have not visited but which boasts the world’s largest wholesale market for cheap crap (Chinese media claims that more than 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in Yiwu):

Where Christmas is made

This is another big achievement for China’s Eurasian infrastructure and trade strategy, annoyingly called “One Belt, One Road.”