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.

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