On 4th March 2018, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury, England, with a Novichok nerve agent. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russia of the attempted murder, but could her own government be responsible?
Over the last few years, tensions have been rising between Russia and Western states, particularly the US and the UK. A number of events have contributed to these tensions:
- Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014
- Russian interference with the 2016 US general election in order to bolster Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine Hillary Clinton’s
- a 2016 ruling that Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated on British soil by the Russian government
- Russia’s support for the Syrian government in the Syrian Civil War.
Now that a Russian former spy for the British secret services has been poisoned with a deadly nerve agent on British soil, there can no longer be any doubt. The Second Cold War is in full swing.
But is everything as it seems?
66-year-old Sergei Skripal is a Russian former intelligence officer who betrayed Russia to the British and became a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services during the 90s and 00s. At 16:15 on 4th March, a passing doctor and nurse found him and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia Skripal, unconscious on a public bench in the centre of Salisbury. An eyewitness saw Yulia foaming at the mouth, eyes wide open, pale as a ghost. The UK government soon announced that the two of them had been poisoned with a nerve agent. For several weeks, Skripal and his daughter remained in a critical condition. By the beginning of April, both were recovering in hospital. (Bugger, thought the assassins.)
On 12th March, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the nerve agent had been identified as a Novichok agent, developed in the 1980s by the Soviet Union. It’s been speculated that since Yulia Skripal had just flown in from Russia the previous day, the nerve agent was planted in one of the personal items in her suitcase while she was there. US media has speculated that it was planted in their car.
The bigger question is — by who?
Theresa May has accused Russia of the attack. She based her reasoning on the fact that Russia has produced the agent in the past and is still capable of doing so, has a record for state-sponsored assassinations, and views certain defectors as legitimate targets for assassination. She concluded that it was either a direct act against the UK by the Russian government or the government lost control of the nerve agent and allowed it to fall into the wrong hands. British foreign secretary Boris Johnson said later that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian president Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the poisoning.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Federation Council of Russia, said of this accusation against Putin:
“To officially voice a version of events that has not been verified yet is ‘politically juicy’ is first of all an exceedingly dishonest policy. Secondly, it violates the presumption of innocence, and thirdly it puts pressure on investigators.”
I’m a British citizen and to be honest I’m inclined to agree with Mr Kosachev. Yes, I get that Russia is doing all kinds of bad things at the moment (though I’m certain our media will exaggerate/skew those things wherever possible). But why are we accusing the president of the world’s second most powerful country of attempted murder so flippantly and without evidence? To me that’s not just politically reckless. It’s stupid.
We’ve done it before though. In 2016 a UK public inquiry said that Vladimir Putin “probably” personally approved the assassination of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. There was no mention in any reports what evidence led the inquiry to that conclusion, just something about personal antagonism between Putin and Litvinenko. I wrote an article about this sometime back, using it to argue that state-sponsored assassinations aren’t always paranoid conspiracy theories and do happen.
In hindsight, however, I’m also a former criminal defence lawyer and no one is guilty of anything until they are proven so with evidence. Now I’m wondering if I made the same mistake that conspiracy theorists make and jumped to conclusions. “Probably” isn’t good enough. It seems to me that Theresa May and Boris Johnson are jumping to conclusions with the Salisbury case too. So how exactly are they better than the conspiracy theorists?
Of course, Russia is doing a bit of wild accusation throwing of its own. The Russian ambassador to Britain has publicly stated that the poisoning was done by British intelligence. Meanwhile the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service told the Moscow Conference on International Security that the poisoning was a “grotesque provocation staged by the British and US intelligence agencies”.
All of this speculative blame-throwing is, naturally, stirring up conspiracy theories. The most concerning of these — from my perspective, as a Brit — is that the Russians are right. That the Salisbury attack was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to smear Russia and justify anti-Russian counter-measures. It’s not impossible. We know from Operation Northwoods that governments have considered attacking their own citizens to justify action against an enemy state.
I’m not one to believe anything without evidence, though, and the evidence at the moment isn’t pointing directly at Theresa May or at Vladimir Putin. It is, however, pointing at the Russians generally. Just a few days ago, suspects were reportedly identified by police. According to reports, a former Russian spy with the codenames “Gordon” and “Mihails Savickis” led a team of six Russian assassins who organised and carried out the attack. Police fear that “Gordon” may have already flown back to Russia and may never be questioned.
The question now is who these Russians ultimately answered to, and where and how they got their hands on this Novichok agent. I don’t buy the false flag theories that the Russians are propagating — there isn’t enough of a motive for the British to have been involved in this (that I can see, anyway). And based on what I’ve heard about Vladimir Putin (from a biased media), I wouldn’t put it past him to have ordered this.
Will we ever know for certain? I doubt it!
Next week: a rundown of everywhere you can read the Million Eyes short stories