Richard North, 13/03/2018  

According to Theresa May, speaking in the Commons yesterday, it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

This was, Mrs May said, a Government conclusion, 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 Prime Minister went on to say that there were, therefore, "only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March". It was either "a direct act by the Russian state against our country", or "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others".

That said, I really didn't want to get stuck into the Salisbury poisoning. We've been distracted enough already from the serious business of Brexit. And while the poisoning is indeed a serious affair, nothing excuses yet another round of media incontinence, where they seem incapable of reporting in any depth more than one issue at a time.

But what makes comment appropriate is a certain similarity with Brexit – the baseless assumptions and the loose use of language to make an unsupported case.

Crucially, contrary to Mrs May's assertion, the group of military-grade nerve agents known as Novichok, were not originally developed by Russia. Rather, they were part of a programme initiated by the Soviet Union, said to be in the late 1970s to early '80s.

The particular variant said to have been used in this incident is Novichok 5. This was developed, according to a number of reports, in the earlier stage of the programme - before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Any accurate description of the product would have it attributed to the Soviet Union.

Another crucial issue is the most likely place of manufacture. As a Soviet Union Cold War weapon, it was almost certainly produced in what is now the Republic of Uzbekistan - more specifically, the site of initial production would have been the Nukus Chemical Research Institute, in Karakalpakstan province.

The point here is that it is a matter of undisputed record that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and during the collapse of the Soviet Union, a state of anarchy existed in many of the former Soviet provinces, including Uzbekistan. For a time, control was lost of formerly secure Soviet facilities, including Nukus Institute, which seems to have been abandoned in 1992/3, after the Russian Federation came into being.

At that point, it would appear, any amount of agent could have been sold or dispersed, its destination and purchasers unknown. So desperate was the situation that the facility was, on the invitation of the Uzbek government, taken over by the United States - which, we must now assume, could have acquired samples of the agent.

Latterly, a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons program, Vil S Mirzayanov, who worked for more than 25 years in the Soviet chemical weapons programme, said publicly that the plant was built to produce batches of Novichock. US involvement was still being reported in 1999.

Putting this in the context of Mrs May's statement to the House yesterday, it would not appear possible for the Prime Minister reliably to ascertain that the poison used on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was produced in or by Russia. On the basis of what we know, it could just as well have been produced by the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to dispute Mrs May's assertion that Russia is still capable of producing the agent. Nor could anyone sensibly deny that Russia has a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations. Furthermore, we would not argue that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations.

When it comes to "plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March", Mrs May would seem to be lacking any good evidence that the poisoning of the Skripals was "a direct act by the Russian state against our country". We can't rule it out, but there is self-evidently no proof of that assertion.

As to the second assertion, "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others", that opens the way to a third possibility - that the Soviets lost control of the agent over two decades ago. And, given that that is a possibility, it could since then have been in the hands any number of ill-intentioned people.

This, therefore, does not allow one to rule out the possibility that the Salisbury poisoning was the work of rogue factions within Russia, outside Putin's control and there are no doubt conspiracy theorists out there happy to asset that this was a false flag operation.

This is mentioned in a level piece by the Christian Science Monitor. Predictably, it says, some Russian analysts are claiming the attack on Mr. Skripal might have been a false flag operation by Western interests:
They suggest the aim was to worsen the crisis of East-West mistrust and prompt tough measures, such as new sanctions against the huge numbers of wealthy Russians – including both pro-and-anti-Kremlin figures – who've parked their assets in Britain in recent years, or perhaps even more sweeping steps like a Western boycott of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. All that, and more, is already under active discussion in Britain.
Other experts, says the CSM, seem less certain:
Contrary to widespread Western belief, Mr. Putin's Russia is not under tight one-man control. Rather than the direct result of Kremlin diktat, experts say, a good deal of lawless behaviour – from the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov three years ago to the recent cyber-shenanigans of Russia's "troll farm" – seems more plausibly explained by factions within Russia's sprawling establishment freelancing in their own interests, perhaps even aiming to please Putin.
On that basis, leaving her options open would be a sensible move for Mrs May. Not least, with Brexit negotiations coming to a head, the British government really doesn't need an another international crisis.

British retaliation, says the CSM could play into Putin's hands. Proposals to force rich Russians residing in Britain to explain the sources of their wealth, or risk having it seized, could force them to bring it back to Russia – something the Kremlin has been trying in vain to convince them to do for almost five years.

But then, leaving her options open is not something that Mrs May does. On 17 January 2017, at Lancaster House, she closed down our options on the Single Market. And now she has made another mistake.

For all we know, Putin ordered the poisoning personally. But until Mrs May has more evidence, she really needs to be careful what she says. Accusing Putin without good evidence is not such a good idea and, without good evidence, is closer to slander than any Prime Minister should ever be.

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