British accusations against Russia not only unproven, but absurd!
The British government claims to have overwhelming evidence of Russia’s responsibility in the Salisbury poison attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. In his Washington Post article of March 14, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went so far as to claim that there was “only [one] plausible conclusion: that the Russian state attempted murder in a British city, employing a lethal nerve agent banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention”. He even connected this with Russia “covering up” the alleged use of “the nerve agent sarin against the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017” by Syrian forces. In a separate statement, the Foreign Secretary tells us it is “overwhelmingly likely” that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the attack. What evidence is there to support such serious accusations?
According to the British government (see e.g. Boris Johnson’s article) and the mainstream media, the following elements are sufficient to incriminate the Russian state with near certainty: the weapon used, the motive, Russia’s past record, the lack of another explanation.
Use of novichok is no proof of Russian involvement
The nerve agent reportedly used in the attack, named novichok, was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that Russian stockpiles of novichok were destroyed under supervision of UN bodies after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) has seen no reason for suspecting any country of continuing to store this deadly agent does not seem to bother the incriminators. Of course, it can be speculated that Russia may have kept the weapon secretly, as does Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian scientist who revealed the existence of the project in 1992 and has lived in the US since 1995.
Boris Johnson has announced that over the last ten year Britain has gathered evidence of Russia creating and storing novichok. We are given no detail of what kind of evidence this may be. It could turn out to be nothing more than isolated, unsubstantiated claims made by Mirzayanov and other opponents of the Russian government.
Not only Russia, but other former members of the Soviet Union, or the US, could have secretly stored or recreated the poison. In 1999 US defence officials helped Uzbekistan dismantle a former Soviet facility which had tested chemical weapons such as novichok. Samples, as well as the knowledge required to produce the nerve agent, are highly likely to have become available to countries other than Russia.
Did Russia have a motive?
Russia supposedly had an obvious motive. The argument goes as follows: Sergei Skripal, while still officially working for the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU, had been secretly recruited by the British MI6, and handed over to his new paymasters the names of all Russian agents he knew to be working in the West. Even after serving a few years in a Russian prison and being allowed to emigrate to the UK as part of a spy swap, he would have remained on an official Russian hit list for his act of treason. His murder would serve as a deterrent towards any other Russian agent who may consider switching sides. And to make things even clearer to would-be defectors, the attack would leave some kind of signature pointing to the Russian state as the perpetrator.
On the face of it, the argument sounds reasonable. However, it makes no sense to consider motives as evidence for doing something if we ignore counter-motives, i.e. reasons for refraining from doing it. Suppose you are in your doctor’s waiting room and have been sitting there for quite some time when suddenly an elderly lady, who arrived there just before you, collapses and is rushed to hospital. You had never seen her before. Now imagine the police later suspect some foul play and discover that the incident allowed you to have your own waiting time shortened by ten or fifteen minutes. You had a clear motive for harming the poor lady. Luckily for you, it then occurs to the investigators that your motive for doing so (saving a few minutes of your time) pales into insignificance compared with the reasons that would have held you back, such as the idea of spending years in jail, not to mention your moral conscience or feelings of human compassion.
In other words, motivation is the result of weighing out costs and benefits.
Putin had a clear motive… for NOT doing it
In the case of the Salisbury attack, the foreseeable costs to Russia, and more specifically to President Putin, are enormous. The Russian government spends considerable effort trying to convince the world that it firmly abides by the rule of law, especially international law and agreements between states. Its own statements, as well as the foreign-policy analyses appearing in the Russian state-owned media, all go towards highlighting Russia’s perceived superiority to the US in terms of respect for international law. Such efforts have greatly intensified in the context of the renewed tensions with the West over the last few years.
Russia’s current leaders believe in ending the current US-dominated unipolar world and are striving to recover some of the influence over world affairs that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This requires having allies, not only state allies, but also Russia-friendly organizations and individuals within states. Any damage to Russia’s international reputation does considerable harm to such prospects.
President Putin himself cultivates the image of a highly principled, responsible and law-abiding person – not that anyone would guess by reading the Western mainstream media! Whatever Russia’s state representatives and media may argue, the Salisbury attack has put many weapons in the hands of Putin’s detractors. In this light, it is absolutely inconceivable that Russia’s president ordered the attack himself. Boris Johnson’s personal accusation not only shows his total misunderstanding of the Russian leadership, but is also utterly irresponsible on the part of Britain’s top diplomat.
(…to be continued!)