On 4 March 2018 it was a foggy day in southern England, and the MI6 Russian spy Sergei Viktorovich Skripal and his daughter Yulia stepped out for a stroll, stopped at the local pub in Salisbury, went to lunch at a nearby restaurant, and then took a walk in the park where they collapsed on a park bench. What had happened to them? Did they suffer from food poisoning? Or was Sergei Skripal involved in some dark affaire and the object of a hit by persons unknown, his daughter being an accidental victim?
The police received a call that day at 4:15pm reporting two people in distress. Emergency services were despatched immediately. The Skripals were rushed to hospital, while the local police launched an investigation. It began to look like attempted murder, but the police urged patience, saying it could take months before they might know what had happened and who, if anyone, was responsible.
The Conservative government decided that it did not need to wait for a police investigation. “The Russians” had tried to assassinate a former intelligence officer turned informant for MI6. Skripal went to jail for that, but was released four years later in an exchange of agents with the United States. Now, “the Russians,” so the Tory hypothesis goes, wanted to settle old scores. Less than 24 hours after the incident in Salisbury, the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, suggested that the Russian government was the prime suspect in what looked like an attempt gone wrong to assassinate Sergei Skripal.
On 12 March the foreign secretary summoned the Russian ambassador to inform him that a nerve agent, A-234, had been used against the Skripals. How did you do it, Johnson wanted to know, or did the Russian government lose control of its stocks of chemical weapons? He gave the Russian ambassador 24 hours to respond. In point of fact, the Russian government does not possess any stockpiles of chemical weapons or nerve agents, having destroyed them all as of September 2017.
Later that day, the British prime minister, Theresa May, declared in the House of Commons that the Skripals, then said to be in a coma, were poisoned with “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia” (italics added) called a ‘novichok’, a Russian word having various possible translations into English (beginner, novice, newcomer, etc.). May claimed that since the Soviet Union was known to have produced this chemical weapon, or nerve agent (also known as A-234), that it was “highly likely” that the Russian government was guilty of the attack on the Skripals.
Here is what the prime minister said in the House of Commons: “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.” The hurried British accusations were redolent of those in 2014 alleging Russian government complicity or direct involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17 over the Ukraine. Within hours of the destruction of MH 17, the United States and its vassals, including Britain, accused Russia of being responsible.
The western modus operandi is the same in the Skripal case. The Tories rushed to conclusions and issued a 24-hour ultimatum to the Russian government to prove its innocence, or rather to admit its guilt. How was the so-called novichok delivered to London, did President Vladimir Putin authorise the attack, did Russia lose control of its stockpile? The prime minister and her foreign secretary had in effect declared Russia guilty as charged. No objective police investigation, no due process, no presumption of innocence, no evidence was necessary: it was “sentence first, verdict later”, as the Red Queen declared in Alice in Wonderland.
On 13 March the Russian embassy informed the Foreign Office that the Russian Federation was not involved in any way with the Salisbury incident. We will not respond to an ultimatum, came the reply from Moscow. The eloquent Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, Mariia Zakharova, characterised the British démarche as a “circus show”. Actually, Foreign Office clerks must have told Boris Johnson that Russia would not respond to such an ultimatum so that it was a deliberate British attempt to provoke a negative Russian reply.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated for the record that “as soon as the rumors, fed by the British leadership, about… the poisoning of Skripal appeared, we immediately requested access to this [toxic] substance so that our experts could analyze it in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.” After the British ambassador visited the Russian foreign ministry on 13 March to receive the formal Russian reply to the British ultimatum, the foreign ministry in Moscow issued a communiqué: “… The [Salisbury] incident appears to be yet another crooked attempt by the UK authorities to discredit Russia. Any threat to take ‘punitive’ measures against Russia will meet with a response. The British side should be aware of that.” The Russian government in fact proposed that the alleged poisoning of the Skripals should be examined by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, according to procedures to which Britain itself had agreed when the OPCW was established in 1997.
On 14 March the British government expelled 23 Russian diplomats, and a few days later the Russian side expelled 23 British diplomats and shuttered the offices of the British Council in Russia. At the same time, the British appealed to their allies and to the European Union to show solidarity by expelling Russian diplomats. Twenty-eight countries did so, though for most it was one or two expulsions, tokenism to appease the British. Other countries—for example, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal—refused to join the stampede. Going over the top, the United States expelled sixty diplomats and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle. The Russians responded in kind with sixty expulsions and the closure of the US consulate in St. Petersburg. Momentum seemed to be building toward a major confrontation. The British prime minister even alluded to the possibility of military action.
In the meantime, President Putin weighed in. “I guess any reasonable person [has] realised,” he said, “that this is complete absurd[ity] and nonsense. [How could] anybody in Russia… allow themselves such actions on the eve of the [Russian] presidential election and the football World Cup? This is unthinkable.” In any police inquiry, investigators look for means, motive and opportunity. On these grounds did the trail of guilt lead to Moscow?
Momentum is sometimes like a balloon, it blows up and then it suddenly bursts. The British case against Russia began to fall apart almost from the time it was made. In late March the Russian newspaper Kommersant leaked a British PowerPoint presentation sent to eighty embassies in Moscow. It asserted, inter alia, that the British chemical weapons facility at Porton Down had positively identified the substance, which allegedly poisoned the Skripals, as a Novichok, “developed only by Russia”. Both these statements are false. On 3 April Porton Down stated publicly that it could not determine the origin of the substance that poisoned the Skripals. It also came out that the formula for making a so-called novichok was published in a book by a Russian dissident and chemist, Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States. You can buy his book (published in 2008), which includes the formula, on Amazon.com. In fact, any number of governments or smart chemists or even bright undergraduate chemistry students with the proper facilities could make this nerve agent. Amongst those governments having access to the original formula are Britain and the United States. The Russian embassy in London noted in a published report that “neither Russia nor the Soviet Union has ever developed an agent named ‘Novichok’.” The report further stated that “While Soviet scientists did work on new types of chemical poisons, the word ‘Novichok’ was introduced in the West in mid-1990s to designate a series of new chemical agents developed there on the basis of information made available by Russian expat researchers. The British insistence to use the Russian word ‘Novichok’ is an attempt to artificially link the substance to Russia.”
The British PowerPoint presentation did not stop with its two main canards. It goes on to refer to “Russian malign activity” including, inter alia, the “invasion” of Georgia in 2008, the “destabilisation” of the Ukraine and the shooting down of MH17 in 2014, and interference in the US elections in 2016. All of these claims are audacious lies, easily deconstructed and unpacked. The referenced events are also unrelated to the Salisbury incident and were raised in an attempt to smear the Russian Federation. In fact, the British PowerPoint slides represent vulgar propaganda, bourrage de crâne, as preposterous as any seen during the Cold War.
As Minister Lavrov pointed out, the Skripal case should have gone for resolution to the OPCW in The Hague. Russia would then be directly involved in the investigation and would have access to the alleged toxin, and other evidence to try to determine what had happened and who were the perpetrators. The British government at first refused to go to the OPCW, and then when it did, refused to authorise the Russian government to have access to the alleged substance, which had sickened the Skripals. That idea is “perverse”, said British authorities. Actually, not at all, it is the procedure laid out in OPCW statutes, to which Britain itself agreed but has refused to respect. When the Russian representative at the OPCW proposed a resolution to the executive council, that it should respect its own statutes, he could not obtain the required vote of approval. The British were attempting to hijack the OPCW as a potential tool against the Russian Federation. Thus far, that stratagem has not worked. On 12 April the OPCW released a report stating that it had “confirm[ed] the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical that was used in Salisbury….” The report said nothing about the origin of the so-called “toxic chemical”. The British accusation against Russia thus remained unsubstantiated.
What I could not understand when I read the OPCW communiqué, is why the Skripals were still alive. The OPCW says that the toxic chemical used against the Skripals was “of high purity”. Was it a nerve agent? Oddly, the OPCW published report avoids a straight answer. If it was a nerve agent, being of “high purity,” it should have been instant acting and killed the Skripals almost immediately. Yet both have survived at the time of this writing. Something does not make sense. Of course, there could be a simple explanation for this puzzling mystery.
On 14 April, Minister Lavrov at a meeting in Moscow provided the answer. The substance used to attack the Skripals was laced with a substance know as BZ which incapacitates rather than kills and takes longer to work than an instant acting nerve agent which kills immediately. The United States, Britain and other NATO countries have developed this toxin and put it into service; the Soviet Union never did so. Traces of A-234 were also identified, but according to experts, such a concentration of the A-234 agent would cause death to anyone affected by it. “Moreover,” according to the Russian embassy in London, “considering its high volatility, the detection of this substance in its initial state (pure form and high concentration) is extremely suspicious as the samples have been taken several weeks since the poisoning,” Could Britsh authorities have tampered with the samples? The public OPCW report gives no details, and refers only to a “toxic chemical”. Nor did the report say that the OPCW had submitted specimens of the substance to a well-known Swiss lab, which promptly reported back its surprising results. The OPCW authorities thus lied when they said that the tests “confirmed” the British identify of the “toxic chemical”. Unless… Porton Down knew that the substance used against the Skripals was a BZ type toxin, and so informed the OPCW, or, unless the Tory government lied in claiming publicly that it was a novichok nerve agent. The British attempted hijacking of the OPCW has compromised its independence, for the public report issued on 12 April is misleading. Moreover, since the BZ toxin is made by the US, Britain and other NATO countries, it begs the same questions, which the Tories put to Moscow: how did the perpetrators obtain the BZ toxin and bring it to Salisbury, did MI5 or MI6 authorise a false flag attack against the Skripals, or was it authorised by the British cabinet or by the prime minister alone? Or did British authorities lose control of their stockpiles? The trail of evidence does not lead to Moscow; it leads to London.
A prima facie case can be made that the British government is lying about the Skripal affaire. Suspicion always falls upon those who act deviously, who hide behind clever turns of phrase and procedural and rhetorical smokescreens. British authorities are now saying that they have other top secret evidence, which explains everything, but unfortunately it can’t be publicised. Nevertheless, the British government appears to have leaked it to the press. The Times published a story about a covert Russian lab producing nerve agents and it spread like wild fire across the Mainstream Media. The Daily Mirror put out a story about a Russian secret assassins’ training manual. These stories are laughable. Is the Tory government that desperate? Is the British “everyman” that gullible?
The secret assassin’s manual reminds me of the 1924 “Zinoviev Letter”, a counterfeit document produced by White Russians in Germany, purporting to demonstrate Soviet interference in British elections and planning for a socialist revolution. It was early days of “fake news”. Parliamentary elections were underway in October 1924 and the Tories used the letter to attack the credibility of the Labour party. It was whipping up the red scare, and it worked like a charm. The Tories won a majority government. Soviet authorities claimed that the letter was bogus and they demanded a third party, independent investigation to ascertain the truth, just as the Russian government has done now. In 1924, the Tories refused, and understandably so, since they had a lot to hide. It took seventy-five years to determine that “the letter” was in fact counterfeit.
The Tories are again acting as if they have something to hide. It is déjà vu. Will it take seventy-five years to get at the truth? Are there any honest British cops, judges, civil servants ready to reveal the truth?
There is other evidence to suggest that the British narrative on the Salisbury incident is bogus. The London Metropolitan Police have sought to prevent any outside contact with the Skripals. They have taken away a recovered Yulia Skripal to an unknown location. They have until now denied Russian consular authorities access to a Russian citizen in violation of British approved consular agreements. Is there any chapter of international law, which the British government now respects? British authorities have denied access to Yulia Skripal’s family in Russia; they have denied a visa to Yulia’s cousin, Viktoria, to visit with her. Are British spooks grooming Yulia, briefing her to stay on the Tory narrative? Is she being manipulated like some kind of Manchurian Candidate? Have they induced her to betray her country in exchange for emoluments, a new identity in the United States, a house, a BMW and money? Are they playing upon her loyalty to her father? Based on a statement attributed to Yulia by the London Metropolitan Police, it begins to look that way. Or, is the message, sounding very British and official, quite simply a fake? The Russian embassy in London suspects that it is. What is certain is that British authorities are acting as though they have something to hide. Even German politicians, amongst others, have criticised the British rush to indict Russia. Damage control is underway. Given all the evidence, can any person with reasonable abilities to think critically believe anything the Tories are saying about the Salisbury affair?
“They are liars. And they know that they are liars,” the late Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz once wrote: “And we know that they are liars. Even so, they keep lying….” Mahfouz was not writing about the British, but all the same, he could have been. Are not his well-known lines apposite to the present government in London?
The Tories are trying doggedly to maintain control of the narrative. Stakes are high for if it eventuates that the Tories have lied deliberately for political gain, at the risk of destabilising European, indeed world peace and security, the Tory government should be forced to resign and new elections, called. Then, the British electorate can decide whether it wants to be governed by reckless, mendacious Tory politicians who risk to provoke war against the Russian Federation.