The Skripal poisoning case

On 4 March 2018, a former Russian military intelligence officer and British spy called Sergei Skripal, together with his daughter Yulia, both living in Salisbury, were poisoned with a neurotoxin identified by UK investigators – and subsequently by independent experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – as Novichok. Russian secret service agents were suspected of perpetrating the crime because Novichok had been stockpiled by the USSR and some of those stockpiles could remain extant. The Russian government has denied involvement and has suggested that the source of the toxin was the UK Defence establishment at Porton Down, eight miles from Salisbury. The UK government has rejected that suggestion and blamed the Russians.

Much of the rest of the world has sided with the UK in this ‘blame game’, perhaps because our government has intelligence that for security reasons hasn’t been made public. However, a considerable amount of supporting evidence is available to all of us. Apart from the likelihood that present-day Russia retains some of the USSR’s Novichok, and could presumably manufacture more, there are strong claims that Russian agents are practised at spreading neurotoxins on the door handles of intended victims; and the Novichok that poisoned Mr Skripal and his daughter was apparently concentrated on their front door handle.

There is more. President Putin is on record as declaring that Russians who betray their country to foreign powers such as the UK don’t deserve to live, and this could be construed as an instruction to his agents to attempt murder. Russians who find themselves at odds with Mr Putin tend to have short life expectancies, dying under suspicious circumstances.

During the past decade or so some fourteen anti-Putin Russian émigrés in Britain have suffered this fate, and investigations into their deaths have been inadequate. The former KGB and FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who had sought asylum in Britain, died of polonium-210 poisoning in 2006. During the trial in 2014-15, a Scotland Yard witness said “the evidence suggests that the only credible explanation is in one way or another the Russian state is involved in Litvinenko’s murder”. Indeed, one of the suspects is reported to have said that Mr Litvinenko deserved to die because he was a traitor, and his demise would set an example to others. Whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny died in 2012, allegedly of ‘natural causes’, although his body contained traces of Gelsemium (a plant toxin that causes cardiac arrest). The death of the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky in 2013 was declared to have been ‘suicide’. At the time of these and other such cases the Home Secretary, who bore ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the incidents were properly and honestly investigated and reported, was Theresa May, now our Prime Minister. Tensions with Russia increased, particularly after the Litvinenko murder, but for the most part all these stories were hidden under a veil of discretion. The attack on the Skripals in March 2018 was presumably so blatant that even Mrs May couldn’t ignore it.

In fine, there’s a good deal of evidence; but it’s all circumstantial. What is worrying is the lack of critical scrutiny of this evidence within the UK. The leader of the Parliamentary opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was at one with the rest of the country when he dubbed the poisoning of the Skripals a wholly unacceptable crime and an act of terrorism, and he agreed that the available evidence pointed to Russian culpability. But when he stated – correctly, on the basis of what the public knows – that the evidence wasn’t definitive, he was accused of being a Russian lackey. Mr Corbyn’s request for calm consideration and a quest for compelling evidence was reasonable, yet it was treated – not least by Britain’s notorious right-wing press – as almost tantamount to treason. More worryingly, perhaps, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appears to have had his internet access blocked for daring to say that the accusations against Russia ran ahead of the evidence and were premature. That particular item of news has been swept under the carpet. I picked it up by chance. Within a few hours of my finding the report it had vanished and there has been no further mention of it, anywhere.

Such biases in (and suppression of) reporting and the assessment of evidence are unacceptable in an open society. As far as we know, the Russian news media have displayed equal and opposite bias, but two wrongs have never made a right. Yulia Skripal has been discharged from hospital and is now housed in a ‘secret location’, no doubt for her protection, and she’s reported as saying that she has no wish to speak to representatives from the Russian embassy. If that’s her wish, then it should be (and apparently is being) respected, notwithstanding Russian demands to interview her. However, as a result, the Russians have accused the UK of ‘abducting’ her. Our news reporters have portrayed this accusation as absurd, but isn’t there a grain of truth in it? Surely our counterterrorism and counterespionage people are interviewing (interrogating?) her while she’s housed in the ‘secret location’? Moreover, some British newspaper headlines have declared that the Russians were hacking Ms Skripal’s e-mail account as long ago as 2015. So one would suppose! If a British spy’s daughter had gone to live in Russia with her father, wouldn’t our security people be hacking her account?

There’s more to be said about the relationship between Russia and the UK (and indeed the Western world in general), but this blog post is approaching the thousand word mark so it’s long enough. I’ll finish with an observation that Mrs May, to her credit, made in a recent BBC interview: let us be grateful to the staff at the Salisbury hospital for saving the lives of Mr Skripal and his daughter. Treating patients who are mortally ill from poisoning by a lethal neurotoxin is hard, demanding and intensive. The doctors and nurses involved in this case deserve unreserved praise and respect, and our news reports have been sparing in it.

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