Britain is justifiably angry at the attempted assassination of a Russian double agent and his daughter currently critically ill in a Salisbury hospital and the fact that a Russian nerve agent was the deadly contaminant is cause for serious consternation. That said, Prime Minister Theresa May’s rush to point a finger at Moscow with which her government has long had a frosty relationship, is open to question; except those who do ask inconvenient questions are shouted down as being unpatriotic in an atmosphere reminiscent of Cold War ‘Reds under the bed’ hysteria.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had the ‘affront’ to call for “calm heads” and “a measured response” until Russia’s guilt could be established. Words of wisdom you might think but his response has split his own shadow cabinet between those baying for Russia’s blood and the more circumspect.
The holes in the government’s line are appearing thick and fast. What motive could Russia possibly have for arranging this hit on Sergei Skripal so close to a presidential election and the nation’s hosting of the World Cup? British MPs are mulling asking their nation’s allies to postpone or move the World Cup football tournament elsewhere.
President Vladimir Putin may be ruthless but dumb he is not. He would surely have anticipated negative diplomatic and economic consequences.
Moreover, why would Russia go to the trouble of sparking a diplomatic incident over a retired spy who could have easily been disposed of while serving a sentence for high treason in a Russia prison before being released as part of a US-Russia spy swap in 2010? Secondly, the preferred method used by the assassin when a hit-and-run, a conventional poison or an armed burglary would have done the job is highly suspect as former MP George Galloway so eloquently puts it:
“Here is the killer question not asked by anyone in Parliament. If this Novichok is exclusively Russian why would Russia choose that weapon? They would be as well leaving a pair of boots covered in snow and painting ‘Vladimir was here on the nearest wall. Maybe a Lada car parked nearby with a bottle of Vodka on the dashboard . . .
“In any list of suspects, Russia must be near the bottom because self-evidently it has not and could not benefit from this crime in any way,” he asserts. Although Galloway has a habit of swaying towards Russia’s side, he has a point.
Russia has won nothing from this debacle. May, however, has succeeded in uniting her cabinet ministers and her party at a time when her popularity was flagging. She now projects Thatcher-style strength just six weeks before local elections are scheduled. The Trump administration has run with May’s accusations imposing a new round of anti-Russian sanctions approved by Congress months ago. The US, France and Germany coalesced behind the UK in blaming Russia for the attack. Britain expelled Russian diplomats before calling for an urgent UN Security Council meeting and successfully blocked a Russian-drafted statement urging a “civilised investigation.”
May said she is looking at making changes within the UNSC that would limit Russia’s power in response to Labour MP Chris Leslie’s accusation that Russia is “increasingly looking like a rogue state” which “cannot be allowed to simply sit pretty, thumbing its nose to the rest of the world community . . .”
Russian Senator Sergey Kalashnikov says “the West has launched a massive operation in order to kick Russia out of the UN Security Council. Russia is now a very inconvenient player for the Western nations and this explains all the recent attacks on our country.” Russia is an inconvenient player. It has annexed Crimea, destabilised Ukraine and, most crucially, is entrenched in Syria to defend the regime and its own sphere of influence.
There are reports that President Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are planning to effect regime change in Syria. Moscow has warned the US not to play with fire, pledging a military response. Could this be the West’s motivation for cutting Russia down to size using the fate of Sergei Skripal and his daughter as a pretext?
Several prominent sceptical voices remind us how the public has been duped in the past over faulty intelligence in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq not to mention the earlier anthrax attacks in the US, the substance found to have been manufactured at an American military chemical-biological weapons laboratory.
The Guardian’s defence correspondent Ewen MacAskill offers an alternative scenario on the nerve agent’s possible sources.
Novichok was developed in Russia—although its very existence has been disputed by some chemical experts—and allegedly tested in Uzbekistan. The writer points out that “the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall were chaotic with chemical weapons laboratories and storage sites across the Soviet Union abandoned by staff . . . at the mercy of criminal gangs.” In any Agatha Christie whodunit the stand out bad guy is never the criminal but life is not fiction. Russia could have done it and may have but until the UK produces more than guesswork I will be keeping an open mind. Passing trace samples of the nerve agent to a competent international body for testing would be a good first start.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.