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.

Happy 100th birthday

…to one of the greatest disasters in human history:

On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, we need to remember that Lenin was not just a proponent of mass terror, but also a man who wanted to turn moral values on their head. For him, as for his heir, Stalin, the dead were just numbers. Human life counted for nothing next to the distant, all-important goal of a Communist future. “Our morality is new,” Lenin said in 1918. “To us, all is permitted. … Blood? Let there be blood … for only the complete and final death of th[e] old world will save us from the return of the old jackals.” As it turned out, the new revolutionary jackals were worse than the old czarist ones.

Lenin pioneered the use of mass terror for political control. A post-truth leader, he invented fake news. He proclaimed dazzlingly simple solutions: Destroy legal and institutional norms, expropriate the property of the rich, and Russia would be on the path to Utopia. “The peasants must seize the estates,” Lenin announced in the spring of 1917. “They must be masters now.” “Break the resistance of a few dozen millionaires,” he added, and workers could take over the factories. It was that simple. […]

Lenin wasn’t greedy, vain, or addicted to luxury, the usual motives that most of us attribute to the power-hungry. Lenin dressed shabbily, in a peaked worker’s cap and heavily worn suit. He and his wife, Nadya Krupskaya, lived frugally, unlike most of the Bolshevik inner circle. He enjoyed power. As Trotsky admitted, Lenin was in effect the dictator of Soviet Russia until a stroke incapacitated him in 1922. He wanted, and got, supreme power, convinced that he was the mind of the revolution. Rosa Luxemberg discerned in him, accurately, “the sterile spirit of the overseer,” rigid and fanatical.

Terrorist assassination seemed to Lenin an undisciplined and aimless tactic despite its popularity among Russian revolutionaries, who killed nearly 20,000 czarist officials during the last 25 years of the Romanov dynasty.

As it happens, this is far more than the number of people executed by the czars in the 92 years through 1917.

The Germans brought him from Zurich to Petrograd in April 1917, trusting that a Bolshevik victory would knock Russia out of the war. In the sealed train heading to the Finland Station with its cargo of 60 Bolsheviks, the impatient Lenin flew into sudden rages—his fits of anger, like his insomnia, were characteristic. He banned smoking in the train and issued tickets so that his followers could line up to smoke in the bathrooms: the first instance of Soviet bureaucracy, as Sebestyen notes.

This is pretty funny, for a couple of reasons.

The day after the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin began censoring newspapers, just a few days after he had proclaimed that the new regime would uphold press freedom.

Communists always lie.

On the Ukrainian famine:

Stalin had the eager help of Western journalists in his engineering of mass death. His key apparatchik was The New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who had a luxury apartment and a mistress in Moscow. Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his political journalism, wielded influence: FDR carefully read his dispatches from the “progressive” Soviet state.

Heckuva job, Western journalists.

As a rule, no matter how bad you think Communism was, it was actually much worse. Let’s spare a thought for the 100 million victims of Communism on this somber centenary, and by all means read the whole article here.