Donald Trump’s latest tweets saying that the US should aim for better relations with Russia underscores a crucial point about the Skripal case: the British are failing to win the support of their allies that they seem to have expected.
At this point it is necessary to say something about the British diplomatic strategy last week,
On Monday 12th March 2018 British Prime Minister Theresa May gave Russia a 36 hour ultimatum saying that unless it proved itself innocent the British government would deem it guilty of the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal
Here is what Theresa May said to the British House of Commons on 12th March 2018
It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.
This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.
Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory 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.
Mr. Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March.
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.
This afternoon my Rt. Hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is — and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.
My Rt. Hon. Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
And he has requested the Russian government’s response by the end of tomorrow…….
Mr. Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.
Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.
(bold italics added)
The last highlighted words are unequivocal. Unless the Russians admitted to the existence of its Novichok stockpile by midnight British time on 13th March 2018 and provided an explanation for the use of the Novichok chemical agent in the Skripal attack by that same deadline, the British government would conclude that it was the Russian government itself which had carried out the attack.
As I have previously pointed out, this was a transparent attempt to reverse the burden of proof, with Russia being required to prove itself innocent instead of Britain being required to prove Russia guilty.
In the event – and as was to be expected – the Russians denied Theresa May’s claims. They pointed out that the OPCW had certified that Russia had destroyed all its stocks of chemical weapons. They categorically denied possessing or stockpiling Novichok agents. They demanded sight of the evidence upon which Theresa May was making her claims, and insisted on adoption of the procedure set out in Article IX(2) of the Chemical Weapons Convention. They denied any role in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.
Accordingly, and consistent with the logic of her ultimatum, Theresa May on 14th March 2018 went before the House of Commons again and declared Russia guilty of a chemical weapons attack on British territory and of the murder attempt on Sergey and Yulia Skripal
……there were only two plausible explanations.
Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.
Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
Mr Speaker, it was right to offer Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation.
But their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.
They have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent.
No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom; no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law.
Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.
So Mr Speaker, there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.
This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.
(bold italics added)
Britain’s subsequent actions followed this logic.
Since it was supposedly “proved” that Russia had carried out a military attack on Britain (“an unlawful use of force….against the United Kingdom”) the British took the matter to the UN Security Council, which is supposed to consider all cases where “an unlawful use of force” is used.
It was at this point that the whole British strategy unravelled.
Firstly, the Russians insisted that the UN Security Council debate be held in public and not in private as the British had originally sought.
The Russians then responded strongly to the British claims, denying them and insisting that proper procedures be followed.
To see what happened next, it is necessary to read through the UN Press Office’s summary of the debate.
Though the British got strong support from Nikki Haley (as was to be expected), the British failed to win unequivocal support for their claim that Russia is guilty from any of the other ambassadors present in the UN Security Council, even from those ambassadors who represent France, Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden, who are Britain’s closest allies.
Instead, in what looks to have been a coordinated position, the ambassadors of Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden followed the lead of the French ambassador whose comments are summarised by the UN Press Office as follows
The United Kingdom Prime Minister had stated that the Russian Federation was responsible. He expressed full confidence in the United Kingdom investigation to shed light on the use of that chemical weapon. The perpetrators must be identified and prosecuted, with responses provided to the United Kingdom’s legitimate questions.
(bold italics added)
The sting in the highlighted words has not been widely grasped. The point however is that earlier on that same day – 14th March 2018 – Theresa May on the expiry of her ultimatum had already pronounced Russia guilty (see above). Yet here was the French ambassador just a few hours later on the same day saying – along with the ambassadors of Poland, the Netherlands and Sweden – that the question of Russia’s guilt had still not been determined, with Russia being asked to answer Britain’s questions, with no deadline for those answers being demanded of Russia, in the context of an investigation which was still underway.
That this is a completely different position from the one taken earlier on the same day by Theresa May has not been generally reported, a fact which is a testament to the extraordinary and continuing power of the passionately anti-Russian English speaking media. However it is clear if one reads carefully the words used.
In other words, though dressing up their position in supportive language, Britain’s allies were declining to echo what the British were saying: that Russia had already been proved to be guilty of the Skripal attack.
The summary of the debate provided by the UN Press Office shows that the non-aligned states were much more equivocal even than this.
None of their ambassadors said that Russia was guilty whilst Russia got support from its allies: China and Kazakhstan.
The ambassador from Peru made a comment which looks like an implied rebuke of the British. The UN Press Office summarises his comment as saying that the incident in Salisbury should be
….investigated in the framework of the rule of law and due process, while the parties involved must fully cooperate in an investigation that would determine those responsible and any applicable sanctions.
(bold italics added)
The ambassador of Ethiopia is reported to have spoken in similar terms
He voiced hope that an independent investigation would be conducted, and vetted, on the Salisbury incident, including by holding consultations on the basis of the Chemical Weapons Convention, with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice. He encouraged good-faith cooperation between United Kingdom and the Russian Federation, which was critical to ensuring that the issue did not get out of hand. Given the United Kingdom’s justified concern, he hoped all concerned would fully cooperate and that the matter would be handled in a fair manner.
(bold italics added)
The point behind these words is that – as Russia’s formidable ambassador Vasily Nebenzia pointed out, it is Britain not Russia which is not following due process and which is acting outside the rule of law, and which is refusing Russia’s offer to cooperate with the investigation.
Here is how the UN Press Office summarises what Nebenzia said
The United Kingdom ignored the procedures in line with international commitments. The matter was being dragged into the Council while the real experts were in The Hague, and those experts would not be convinced. The letter stated that the Russian Federation had something to do with the use of toxic agents in Salisbury. His country had been given 24 hours to admit that it had committed a crime. His country did not speak the language of ultimatums, and would not be spoken to in that language….His country had nothing to do with the incident, and the ultimatum from London was something that it could not pay attention to and that he considered null and void. He expected that the United Kingdom should act in strict adherence to the Convention on Chemical Weapons and would provide samples of the substances for joint investigation, as it was saying that it was Russian in origin. That was not optional; it was mandatory under the Convention.
I am not privy to Britain’s diplomatic strategy, but I suspect that the British expected much stronger support in the UN Security Council than they got, and expected that their NATO allies at least would simply accept and echo their assertion of Russian guilt.
My guess is that the British plan was to follow this up by presenting a Resolution to the UN Security Council condemning Russia.
After the Russians vetoed the Resolution – as it would of course do – the British intended to call on the support of their NATO allies by invoking Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which reads as follows
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
Note how Article 5 uses essentially the same language – “an armed attack” – as Theresa May used in her statements to the House of Commons on 12th and 14th March 2018 – “an unlawful use of force” – and how it envisages an “immediate report to the Security Council” and “measures necessary to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area” until “the Security Council has taken the necessary measures”.
In other words the British referral to the UN Security Council had the purpose of preparing the ground for an emergency NATO summit at which Britain would invoke Article 5.
My guess is that the British planned to get their NATO and EU allies at this summit to impose across the board sanctions on Russia as “necessary measures” for “collective self-defence” pursuant to Article 5 in light of the “unlawful use of force” that they all agreed Russia had carried out against one of their members ie. Britain.
If this is correct – and I am sure it is – then Britain’s allies saw through this British strategy and quietly sidestepped it.
The result is a series of ritual statements which appear to support Britain but which actually do no such thing.
Here is the first of them, a joint statement made by the US, Britain, Germany and France on 15th March 2018
We, the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018. A British police officer who was also exposed in the attack remains seriously ill, and the lives of many innocent British citizens have been threatened. We express our sympathies to them all, and our admiration for the United Kingdom police and emergency services for their courageous response.
This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It is an assault on the United Kingdom’s sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.
The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the government of the United Kingdom further underlines Russia’s responsibility. We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury.
Russia should, in particular, provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Our concerns are also heightened against the background of a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behavior. We call on Russia to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the U.N. Security Council to uphold international peace and security.
Craig Murray has correctly pointed out the careful use in this statement of the formula “a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia” as opposed to a simple and outright statement that the “military grade nerve agent” was “made by Russia“.
However what has so far as I know has up to now gone unnoticed is that the statement actually falls well short of saying that Russia actually carried out the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.
On the contrary, repeating the formula used by Britain’s Western allies in the UN Security Council on the previous day (see above), it continues to treat the question of Russia’s guilt as undecided, and continues to ask Russia to answer Britain’s questions, without setting any deadline for Russia to do so.
This despite the fact that Theresa May’s deadline for Russia to answer these questions had by then already passed, so that she had already declared Russia guilty.
On 19th March 2018 the EU issued its own statement which proved to be even weaker and more equivocal than the statement issued by the US, Britain, Germany and France on 15th March 2018. Its full text is as follows
The European Union strongly condemns the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK on 4 March 2018, that also left a police officer seriously ill. The lives of many citizens were threatened by this reckless and illegal act. The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible.
The European Union is shocked at the offensive use of any military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, for the first time on European soil in over 70 years. The use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances is completely unacceptable and constitutes a security threat to us all. Any such use is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a breach of international law and undermines the rules-based international order. The EU welcomes the commitment of the UK to work closely with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in supporting the investigation into the attack. The Union calls on Russia to address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the OPCW.
The European Union expresses its unqualified solidarity with the UK and its support, including for the UK’s efforts to bring those responsible for this crime to justice.
The EU will remain closely focussed on this issue and its implications.
Once again we see the formula identified by Craig Murray – “a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia” – instead of “a military-grade nerve agent, made by Russia“.
However the sting in this statement is again contained in the following words
The Union calls on Russia to address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the OPCW
Once again Theresa May’s ultimatum of 12th March 2018 is treated as if it had never been made.
There is no statement of Russia’s guilt, despite Theresa May having already declared Russia guilty on 14th March 2018.
Instead the Russians are asked to cooperate with the OPCW – whose investigation of the type of chemical agent used in the attack the Russians were the first to insist upon – by making a full disclosure about the Novichok programme to the OPCW – something which the Russians have always said they are prepared to do.
Note that though the statement demands “immediate disclosure” it too sets no actual deadline, whilst it ignores the fact that Theresa May’s deadline has already passed.
It also speaks of a “Russia’s Novichok programme” as opposed to “Novichok stockpiles in Russia”, leaving open the possibility that – as the Russians say – no such Novichok stockpiles in Russia exist.
Britain’s Western allies have in the meantime made it absolutely clear that they do not consider that the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal is such a one as to merit Britain invoking Article 5.
Even Boris Johnson, Britain’s buffoonish Foreign Secretary who presumably devised its diplomatic strategy, now accepts – to his obvious disappointment and frustration – that Article 5 is not going to be invoked
Mr Johnson said that Russia had skilfully chosen a series of targets just beneath the level at which Nato’s Article 5 would be triggered. Article 5 commits member states to consider an armed attack on one to be against them all.
As to what Britain’s core allies really think of the whole Skripal affair, that is shown by the fulsome way they have all rushed to congratulate Vladimir Putin following his recent re-election.
This is how the Kremlin summarises the call from US President Trump
Donald Trump congratulated Vladimir Putin on his victory in the presidential election. The leaders spoke in favour of developing practical cooperation in various areas, including efforts to ensure strategic stability and combat international terrorism, with particular emphasis on the importance of coordinated efforts to curb an arms race.
The exchange on economic cooperation revealed an interest in bolstering it. Energy was discussed separately.
The problem of Syria was discussed, as was the internal crisis in Ukraine. There was recognition on both sides of the need to make rapid strides toward achieving settlements.
Satisfaction was expressed with the limited reduction of tensions around the Korean Peninsula. The expediency of continuing consistent efforts to resolve the situation by peaceful, diplomatic means was underscored.
It was agreed to develop further bilateral contacts in light of the changes in leadership at the US Department of State. The possibility of organising a top-level meeting received special attention.
On the whole, the conversation was constructive and businesslike, with a focus on overcoming the accumulated problems in Russian-American relations.
Note that there is no reference here to the Skripal attack here at all, a fact which echoes Donald Trump’s total silence about the Skripal attack in his twitter feed, which is the place where he expresses those things on his mind.
Instead what we have from Donald Trump on his twitter feed is more restatements of his long standing wish for good relations with Russia
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
…..They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
More words of congratulation for Putin came from President Macron of France. Here is how the Kremlin summarises those
Emmanuel Macron congratulated Vladimir Putin on winning the presidential election and spoke in favour of continuing joint work aimed at the further expansion of multifaceted Russian-French cooperation, in particular, between civil societies, as part of the Trianon Dialogue.
The Syrian settlement within the context of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2401 and the Ukraine crisis were discussed extensively, given the importance of complying with the Minsk agreements.
The incident in Salisbury was also touched on. Russia focused on the unsubstantiated nature of the charges brought against it and reiterated its willingness to conduct a joint investigation into the incident.
It was agreed to continue exchanging views on the issues raised during the conversation at various levels.
Dear Mr. President, with all my heart I congratulate you on your next reelection Russian president.
Today, it is vitally important to continue dialogue and maintain relations between our countries and nations. With this in mind, we should take efforts for constructive work on major bilateral and international problems to find proper solutions. I wish you success in your work to resolve the tasks facing you
Note that there is no reference here to the Skripal attack either.
Britain’s anger at the fulsome letter of congratulation sent to Putin by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is in my opinion a mask for British dismay at the telegram sent to Putin by Merkel.
In truth Juncker’s words of congratulations to Putin were fulsome enough
Congratulations on your re-election, President #Putin. I have always argued that positive relations between the #EU and #Russia are crucial to the #security of our continent. Our objective should be to re-establish a cooperative pan-European security order. pic.twitter.com/PiEGg56DBN
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) March 20, 2018
However Merkel is a far more powerful and important person than Juncker. The British dare not criticise her, so they are taking out their anger by criticising Juncker instead.
All the indications are that the same pattern will continue at the EU Council meeting today.
There will be what superficially looks like strong statement of support for the British. When examined closely it will turn out that the statement however actually says less than it seems to, with even the BBC admitting that
EU countries were not united in “being willing to point their finger at Russia” or taking further steps, such as expelling diplomats.
As for concrete measures against Russia, already it seems that the British are scaling down their demands.
Suggestions that Nord Stream 2 be cancelled have apparently already been rebuffed. The BBC quotes British officials saying the following
……..a senior Whitehall official said Russia had “shown itself to be a strategic enemy not a strategic partner”.
The official stressed that the UK’s response to the Salisbury attack had been carefully calibrated to remain within the law, and that the UK was “not looking for some big confrontation with Russia or regime change”.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the UK’s Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said it was “very important to stand up” to Russia over the attack, but the UK must “continue to engage” with the country.
He added: “We continue to engage with Russia because we seek a position where Russia does abide by internal rules and norms [and] where Russia is a grown-up player on the world stage abiding by the international approaches, for instance not using chemical weapons.”
That Britain is “not looking for some big confrontation with Russia” after all the fire and thunder of last week will have come as a surprise to many people.
In truth what those words show is that the “big confrontation with Russia” has already happened, and that the British have lost it.
Quite simply their allies don’t want it, and for that reason it isn’t going to happen.