The spy and the nerve agent: The new Cold War heats up in the UK

In a horrifying case of life imitating lowbrow art, it seems likely there will be many twists and turns to the story, even if an actual ending in which all is revealed seems unlikely.

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Image Credit: theaustralian.com.au

In the summer of 2010, Sergei Skripal arrived in Salisbury, a quiet town of 45,000 in Wiltshire, England, along with his wife Lyudmila, who passed away a year later, and his daughter, Yulia. He was a former agent of Russian military intelligence (the GRU) who’d sold information to British intelligence for almost 20 years, beginning in 1993.

Skripal and family traveled on to the U.K. after he was released from a Russian prison where he’d been held since 2006. He was freed as part of an exchange of spies that included the more famous Anna Chapman, a naturalized British citizen and former model, arrested for spying in the U.S. and returned to Russia as part of the swap. From what we know, Skripal was living a somewhat ordinary existence, seemingly retired, well-dressed and often about town. His daughter, 33, who had returned to Russia and had reportedly recently become engaged to be married, arrived on a visit on March 3rd.

The following day, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, after visiting a local pub and going to a nearby restaurant called Zizzi’s, were found passed out and seemingly intoxicated on a park bench just after 4 PM. They were taken to Salisbury District Hospital, where they remain in critical condition. As reported by the tabloid Mirror, doctors weren‘t sure what Skripal and his daughter had been exposed to and, “were baffled by their symptoms”

One of the first police officers to respond, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, was also hospitalized soon after with similar symptoms. He is known to have entered Skripal’s home, one of the locations where the initial poisoning may have taken place (another theory is that it was released through the vents of Skripal’s car).

It was the kind of mystery one expects to find in a Cold War thriller, not on the streets of one of England’s famed cathedral cities in 2018. In a horrifying case of life imitating lowbrow art, it seems likely there will be many twists and turns to the story, even if an actual ending in which all is revealed seems unlikely.

It would take almost a week of ordinary citizens continuing to go about their day to day business before a convoy of hazmat suited representatives of the authorities showed up to search for possible sources of contamination; people who had previously been told they were in no danger now saw well-protected investigators combing areas they may have just walked through. Locals were then told not to worry but to take precautions by washing their clothes and wiping down things like jewellery and cell phones with baby wipes.

The scandal of the poor response of the government, which, if the nerve agent were truly military grade could have resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths, was easily superseded by accusations of Russian state involvement in the attack. What then ensued would put the U.K. on its worst footing with Russia since the Thatcher era.

Pointing the finger of blame

As police and intelligence agencies began their investigation, senior ministers in the British government, quickly followed by the Prime Minister herself, began to blame Russia and in a few cases, more specifically, the Russian President, for the crime. There is a very good reason why suspicion fell on that country: the class of nerve agent allegedly used, Novichok, is of Russian origin.

Still, as the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray recently explained, Novichok itself is not a weapon but a word used to describe Russian efforts to create, “a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilizers.”

As Murray makes clear, experts weren’t sure if the program itself was ever successful, which explains why no agent associated with the program is banned by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The former ambassador also believes that he’s discovered a slight obfuscation in terms of the language used by various figures in Britain and even in the joint letter issued by the U.K., U.S., France and Germany a little more than a week after the attack, with each using the exact phrase regarding the substance used being, “of a type developed by Russia,” a truthful statement, but one that doesn’t exactly fix responsibility.

It’s important to report Prime Minister May’s initial remarks in parliament at some length, “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

In its official response to May’s remarks, as reported by the government owned Tass news agency, the Russian foreign ministry argued that the charges had been made without the use of traditional methods of investigation, including involving representatives of the OPCW, to which treaty both Russia and the U.K. are signatories, saying in a statement, “Clearly, by employing unilateral and non-transparent methods to investigate this incident, British authorities once again attempted to launch a baseless campaign against Russia.”

Russian officials also demanded that a sample of the agent used be shared with them for their own investigation, a request that was denied by the British government, which then expelled 23 Russian diplomats.

Not to be outdone in creating further tensions, the Russians matched them with 23 expulsions of their own shortly thereafter.

As has become quite common, supporters of the unpopular Theresa May and her government weren’t above taking the opportunity to attack the popular leader of the opposition Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, for his cautious approach to placing blame before the investigation had really gotten underway.

Corbyn, whose position in response to the PM’s remarks, was that the attack was “deeply alarming” but that, “We need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and potentially even more dangerous.”

In an opinion piece published by The Guardian soon after, Corbyn rightly criticized the Russian government’s “conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption” but goes on to explain that many Russian billionaires, both for and against the Putin government, have landed in London and give large amounts to political parties, especially the ‘pro-business’ Conservatives.

For this and other reasonable statements, Corbyn drew the ire of not only May’s supporters but even some members of his own party and most of the media, who have been unrelenting in their attacks on him ever since he surprised the British political class by winning leadership of Labor by the largest margin in its history, twice.

While allowing the hedge that Russia had not properly secured the nerve agent, Prime Minister May’s statement doesn’t really allow for this to be the work of another state actor. There may be others who have access to or who could create such an agent, including many former satellites that formed parts of the old Soviet Union. While it may seem dubious to some, the Russian Federation’s known stocks chemical weapons have been destroyed, according to the OPCW. By December of 2017, 39,967 metric tons of such chemical agents were disposed of, for their part, both the U.K. and the United States have still not met their commitments in this regard.

Thus, even the U.K. government itself could be in possession of such material, no doubt for ‘research purposes’. In a strange coincidence, the Porton Down labs that May mentioned, which is the country’s premiere researcher into these types of weapons, is close to Salisbury, in the Wiltshire village with the same name as the facility. Defense secretary Gavin Williamson pledged 48 million pounds ($67 million USD) in additional funding to the lab almost immediately after the attack.

Although the sources are dubious, coming from the lowest common denominator English tabloid press, Yulia’s unnamed boyfriend is said to be in the employ of Russian intelligence as is his mother (also unnamed) and her niece has told the press that she believes Yulia’s future mother in law could have been responsible for the attack, due to the fact that her father is a ‘traitor’, but these reports seem more like gossip than serious reporting.

Hopefully, with the arrival of OPCW investigators more than two weeks later, on Monday, March 19th, proof of what substance was used will be made public, allowing life in Salisbury to return to normal and local authorities will then have more information from a non-politicized source to aid their criminal investigation. While British authorities were quick to blame Russia for the attack, Ahmet Uzucu, director general of the OPCW, said it will take at least three weeks to identify the substance used and that he “cannot project the outcome of such technical work.”

Many a criminal investigation has been side tracked by investigators following only the most obvious premise and the argument here is that the Russian origin and assumed sophistication of the poison strongly points in that direction. This isn’t to say that the Russian government or a rogue faction of it couldn’t be involved, many opponents of Vladimir Putin have died under mysterious circumstances, but in the case of Skripal, why not do it while he was in a Russian prison?

It’s also important to note that this happened in the lead up to the Russian election and just prior to the World Cup that is intended to display a very different Russia on one of the world’s biggest stages. Whatever one thinks of the Russian president, he generally appears rational and killing Skripal as some kind of ‘warning’ as some have suggested, just doesn’t make much sense.

Jumping to conclusions and ignoring its treaty obligations in terms of the OPCW may have been politically expedient for May and her cohorts in the short term, making her appear tough and temporarily boosting her popularity. How effective this strategy is over the longer term as the investigations move forward, remains to be seen.

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