Once again the British media is going through a James Bond moment following the discovery on Monday of two Russians – Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia – seriously ill and poisoned on a bench in the town of Salisbury.
The story has dominated the media for two days, the British cabinet’s COBRA committee has met, there have been portentous (and quickly retracted) announcements by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson concerning a British intention to boycott the World Cup in Russia, a further (calmer) announcement today by British Home Secretary Amber Rudd (one of the few relatively level headed politicians left in Britain), and it seems that a statement to the House of Commons by British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected shortly.
Meanwhile the media has been pouring out stories asserting “Russian state involvement” in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter as fact, along with speculations about whether or not the substance which poisoned them is radioactive (it isn’t), with comparisons being made between the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter and the murder by polonium poisoning in 2006 of the exiled Russian ex-policeman and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko.
It needs to be said clearly that all these speculations are at the present time both groundless and unwarranted. So far not a scintilla of evidence has publicly appeared linking the Russian state to the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter.
Moreover in one important respect the reporting is demonstrably wrong.
Skripal is invariably described in the British media as a “Russian spy”. It should be said clearly that he is no such thing. Just as Alexander Litvinenko was never a spy (he was a law enforcement officer tasked by the FSB with combatting organised crime) so Skripal is not a “Russian spy”.
Skripal is a former Russian army officer who beginning in December 1995 started accepting payments from the British in return for information. He was a British not a Russian spy.
Skripal became an informer for British intelligence at a time when the influence within British intelligence of Christopher Steele – the compiler of the Trump Dossier – was approaching its peak. As Business Insider says, it is likely – though not proven – that he was a member of Steele’s network.
In the event the Russians discovered in 2004 that Skripal was working for the British, and he was arrested and jailed by them in that year. As John Helmer has pointed out, shortly after in 2006 the Russian counterintelligence agency the FSB rolled up what was left of Britain’s intelligence operation in Russia. Skripal himself was pardoned and exchanged by the Russians in 2010 in return for the ‘illegals’ (Russian deep cover agents) infiltrated by Russian intelligence into the US, who were arrested by the US that year. The glamorous Anna Chapman was one of these Russian ‘illegals’.
Why the Russians would want to murder an ex-spy who they had previously pardoned and allowed to go to the West after they had caught and jailed him is not obvious.
As several British media commentaries have rather grudgingly admitted, by the time Skripal was poisoned he had been thoroughly exposed and debriefed by both the Russians and the British, and was living a quiet life in retirement in Salisbury. At the time of his poisoning he posed no conceivable threat to Russian intelligence or to Russia.
Theories that his poisoning was some sort of act of ‘revenge’ against Skripal for his previous activities, or was intended as some sort of warning by the Russians to Steele, are not only entirely unsupported by evidence but would be wholly out of character for Russian intelligence, and should be discounted.
Though there is in fact very little publicly available evidence at the present time upon which to base speculations about the case, such evidence as there is if anything points away from Russian state involvement.
Though the substance which poisoned Skripal and his daughter has apparently so far not been conclusively identified, some reports suggest that it is fentanyl, a powerful opoid drug, which is widely available in Britain where it is used both for medical and for recreational drug use.
The fact that traces of this substance were found on the bench where Skripal and his daughter were sitting when they were found suggests – though it does not prove – that they ingested the substance themselves.
If the substance was fentanyl then that might suggest either a case of recreational drugs use which went horribly wrong – and fentanyl has been linked in Britain to the deaths of large numbers of recreational drugs users – or sadly to something darker.
It is a commonplace that defectors cut off forever from their home country often fall into depression and engage in suicidal thoughts – here is an article discussing this condition amongst North Korean defectors – and Skripal has in addition recently suffered the double blow of the death in 2012 from cancer of his wife and of the recent death in July last year of his son.
Assuming that his daughter shared his grief it is not impossible that this is a joint suicide attempt.
Let me stress that I do not know whether either of these two theories is true, just as I do not know that the substance which poisoned Skripal and his daughter is fentanyl – other theories suggest that it might have been a nerve agent – though I would say that the accounts of witnesses of the appearance of Skripal and of his daughter when they were found which I have seen do seem to me to be consistent with fentanyl poisoning.
I only bring up these theories because there have been so many other theories which look to me far less grounded in the facts of this case as they are so far known.
If – as is to be earnestly hoped – Skripal and his daughter recover from their poisoning, perhaps they will tell us what happened and we will know the truth.
In the meantime there is no justification for the orgy of unsubstantiated speculation about this case which we are currently witnessing in Britain and elsewhere.
Nor – given that only two people are involved – is there any justification for the preposterously over the top publicity which is being given to this incident.
In Britain sad to say people die from drugs overdoses every day – with fentanyl responsible for a large proportion of these deaths – making it absurd to focus on just two cases of poisoning until more is publicly known about this incident which justifies treating it as something more sinister.
Certainly convening the COBRA committee and getting the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to make statements at this stage in the case is profoundly wrong and frankly ridiculous.
What unfortunately it shows is how extreme the atmosphere of Russophobia in Britain has become that speculation like this can run rife and dominate the headlines for days in the complete absence of any facts.