It hard to believe that relations between the UK and Russia could get any worse, but they have – and we are probably still a long way from the nadir. The nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 not only threatened their lives, but also the health of bystanders and first responders. The murder attempt had devastating consequences on Russo-British relations. The British have been keen to internationalise the incident and have demanded expressions of solidarity from allies, and thus relations not only with the UK but also with most of the Atlantic community have deteriorated further. The British government points the finger of blame not only at the Moscow authorities, but at President Vladimir Putin personally. On 14 March a range of sanctions were imposed, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the London embassy.
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.
Given the enormous stakes at play, it is incumbent on us to make a calm assessment of the facts and the probabilities. We have already entered what some call a new cold war, with elements of a new arms race, the remilitarisation and division of the European continent, the breakdown in political communication between rival leaders, and the degradation of the practices of diplomacy. In comparison, the ‘megaphone diplomacy’ that was talked about in the early 1980s, during some of the coldest moments in the Cold War, was a gentlemanly affair. The Skripal case has significantly ratcheted down the thermometer in what was already a time of over-heated rhetoric and dangerous confrontation – and that, perhaps, was the point!
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.
It appears, however, that the logic underlying these assertions is that the Kremlin had form in this respect, notably the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006, but that the government had no concrete evidence – certainly none that it was willing to share with the public. The Robert Owen inquiry into Litvinenko’s death concluded that Putin ‘probably’ ordered the killing, although that was not demonstrated in the body of the report. There are also a number of other suspicious deaths, including the alleged suicide by hanging of Boris Berzovsky in 2013. There was also the tragic assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on 27 February 2015. Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases 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.
The suggestion that Putin is personally responsible for these deaths has become part of the heated political atmosphere of the current period. This was notably the case with the BBC documentary, Putin: The New Tsar, aired on BBC2 on Friday 9 March. In this the BBC hit a new low. The programme was pure propaganda, and it is surprising that it was ever broadcast. Instead of the usual balance, by the choice of contributors (almost entirely Putin’s critics), the programme clearly set out to denounce Putin and his leadership in the harshest possible terms. Within two minutes Hitler was invoked; and as we know from Godwin’s Law, at that point debate usually takes a precipitous downward turn. The Law certainly applies in this case. No academics were invited to asses Putin or his achievements and failings as a Russian leader facing domestic and foreign challenges. One may or may not agree with his policy choices, but in the context they follow a certain logic and rationality. In this case, a cod psychological portrait presented Putin in the darkest light possible, accompanied by numerous factual mistakes and an entirely tendentious slant throughout. The demonization of Putin does not advance understanding of Russia’s policy choices. The programme is a worrying symptom of the degradation of public discourse in the UK.
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.
For example, Putin’s state of the nation speech on 1 March devoted two-thirds of the time to an ambitious plan for the modernisation of the Russian economy and society. Above all, it talked about the development of a digital economy. Whether its goals are achievable is another matter, but what that part of the speech showed is that after a long period of internal strife (the speech was repeatedly postponed) the modernisers had won out over those advocating the mobilisation and fortress Russia model of development. The Skripal affair could well have been the response of the losers in that debate. If that is the case (and this is as likely a theory as any other, probably more), then the British response is just the one that Putin’s opponents had hoped for.
There is also the issue of the use of the nerve agent, identified as a substance called Novichok. The western leaders’ statement on 15 March ‘abhorred’ the Salisbury incident, noting that the use of Novichok by Russia ‘constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war’. This and other statements were careful in their formulation, stressing that the nerve agent was ‘of a type developed by Russia’. Apparently, Porton Down refused to acceded to official pressure of the sort that had produced the ‘dodgy dossier’ in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Russia may well have been the source of the agent, but this is not demonstrated. In November 2017 Russia had officially destroyed the last of its chemical weapons, under the supervision of the 192-member Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Novichok 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.
In addition, Mirzayanov published a book in 2008 in which he gave detailed guidance on how the Novichok nerve agent was allegedly made. It is a binary system, requiring the combination of two relatively accessible materials to make the toxic agent. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, stresses that Novichok was part of the fourth generation of nerve agents, developed in the Soviet Union as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme. He cites a learned paper to the effect that it has never been definitely proven that Novichok actually existed – we only have Mirzayanov’s word for it. This is why the OPCW did not add Novichok to its Annex of prohibited substances under the CWC.
Rather than just the two possibilities outlined by Theresa May, in fact there are at least six, possibly seven. The first is that this was a state-sponsored, and possibly Putin-ordered, killing. This has now become the western official version, although it initially met with scepticism from the French authorities, accusing Theresa May of ‘fantasy politics’. As argued above, this version simply does not make sense, and until concrete evidence emerges, it should be discounted. Why would the Kremlin risk ramping up tensions, just when policy clearly sought to defuse the growing conflict by stressing that Russia was open to dialogue and discussion with its western partners? This was the brunt of the last third of Putin’s 1 March Federal Assembly speech. In addition, the theory, asserted by May, that Russia wanted to punish a defector, makes even less sense. Skripal was not a defector but a double agent who had been part of a spy swap in 2010. Usually in such cases the matter is then closed; otherwise, the credibility of future spy swaps would be jeopardised.
The second version is rather more plausible, that the authorities had lost control of its stocks of chemical weapons. In the early 1990s Russian facilities were notoriously lax, but since the 2000s strict control over stocks were re-imposed, until their final destruction in 2017. It is quite possible that some person or persons unknown secreted material, and then conducted some sort of vigilante operation to punish a traitor. Possibly, the idea was to punish the UK as a whole, since Britain has consistently been the most hawkish country in its Russia policy. The argument has been taken further to suggest that Moscow perceives the UK as weakened by Brexit, and thus a more vulnerable target.
The third version is the exact opposite: some sort of anti-Putin action by those trying to force his policy choices. We know that domestic development strategy has been the subject of intense political debate in the recent period, and although the mobilisers liked the last third of Putin’s state of the nation speech, outlining a range of new nuclear super-weapons, they were less pleased with the first two-thirds. Putin has been accused of being too weak and too emollient vis-à-vis the west, so possibly some hardline faction is trying to force his hand.
The fourth version is similar, but this time the anti-Putinists are not home-grown but outsiders. Here the list of people who would allegedly benefit by discrediting Russia is a long one. If Novichok or its formula has proliferated, then it would not be that hard to organise some sort of false flag operation. The list of countries mentioned in social media in this respect is a long one. Obviously, Ukraine comes top of the list, not only because of motivation, but also because of possible access to the material, as a post-Soviet state with historical links to the Russian chemical weapons programme. Israel has a large chemical weapon inventory and is not a party to the OPCW; but it has no motivation for such an attack (unless some inadvertent leak occurred here). Another version is that the UK itself provoked the incident, as a way of elevating its status as a country ‘punching above its weight’. The British chemical weapons establishment, Porton Down, is only 12 kilometres from Salisbury. While superficially plausible, there is absolutely no evidence that this is a credible version, and should be discounted.
The fifth version is a rather more elaborate development of the previous point. There is circumstantial evidence, a version outlined by the Daily Telegraph, that Skripal may have had a hand in devising Christopher Steele’s ‘Trump Dossier’. The British agent who originally recruited Skripal, Pablo Miller, lives in Salisbury, and also has connections with Orbis International, Steele’s agency in London. In this version, Skripal is still working in one way or another with MI6, and fed stories to Steele, who then intervenes massively in US politics, effectively preventing the much-desired rapprochement between Trump and Putin. Deep anger at the malevolent results of the Steele and British intervention in international politics and US domestic affairs prompts a revenge killing, with the demonstration effect achieved by using such a bizarre assassination weapon.
The sixth version is the involvement of certain criminal elements, who for reasons best known to themselves were smuggling the material, and released it by accident. In this version, the Skripals are the accidental and not intended victims. There are various elaborations of this version, including the activities of anti-Putin mobsters. One may add a seventh version here, in which Islamic State or some other Islamist group seeks to provoke turmoil in Europe.
There is no doubt that the Skripal poisoning is a major incident that will resonate through history. It is amplified by the murder of the Russian businessman and associate of Berezovsky, Nikolai Glushkov, on 12 March. The only question is whether the confrontation will dissipate, as it did over Agadir in 1911, or whether this is the Sarajevo slow-burning crisis that could explode into flame at some later point. The British side are quite rightly concerned about the use of a nerve agent in a British city, with huge public health implications and a direct attack on British sovereignty. But who is responsible? Will it be another case of the sinking of the Maine in 1898, where the subsequent public hysteria provoked war against Spain only to be discovered later that the ship’s ammunition stores had accidentally exploded; or a Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, which was also a false flag operation but provoked the escalation of the Vietnam war. The West may be ‘uniting’ against Russia, as The Times put it on 16 March, but to what purpose.
Johnson told the BBC on 15 March that ‘There is something in the kind of smug, sarcastic response that we’ve heard that indicates their fundamental guilt’. But why shouldn’t such a response indicate the opposite: the charge of Kremlin is so absurd, that sarcasm was the only possible response? Johnson has a long track record of undiplomatic comments about Russia (and before that, the European Union, with devastating consequences), and London worked assiduously to ensure that this became the platform of the whole Atlantic community. Of course, countries like Lithuania were only too eager to do so. The Lithuanian foreign minister argued that Putin was testing Britain, and taking advantage of the country’s weakened status as a result of Brexit. This theory is endlessly peddled, but there is no substantive evidence that this is the direction of Russian foreign policy. Instead, it reflects the rhetoric of the new cold war.
In this context, one of the few British politicians to show statesmanship and discretion is the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. He rightly noted that after the Iraq and Libyan debacles, it would be sensible to take British government assertions with a healthy pinch of salt. As he noted in an article in The Guardian on 16 March, ‘in my years in parliament, I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. … Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion. There was overwhelming bipartisan support for attacking Libya, but it proved to be wrong’.
As usual, Alexei Gromyko, the Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe, in an informal communication hits exactly the right note, and hence he should have the last word: ‘Those who say that this crime is in the interests of the Russian state, in my opinion, make fools of themselves. I have been specialising in British politics for 30 years and on many points I was a sympathiser of the British party-political system not to mention the country per se. But I should confess that in the past decade British politics and British politicians have been turning into something and somebody, that are very difficult to be inspired with even as objects of academic studies. I hope very much that before long the UK will get politicians whom it deserves’. Well, perhaps not entirely the last word: possibly we have got the politicians we deserve? What a dreadful thought.