Observations of an ex pat: Russian spy evidence again and again and…

It is time to look at the evidence a second time, and then a third, fourth and a fifth.

A large and important slice of the world’s governments—led by the British—have inflicted severe diplomatic damage on the Russians because of the British allegation that Moscow attempted to murder a Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil with the nerve agent Novichok.

The Conservative government of Theresa May is utterly convinced that Putin’s Moscow is behind the attack. It persuaded 24 other countries – and NATO headquarters—of the veracity of their case to the extent that they have all joined in expelling Russian diplomats.

But they have failed to persuade Opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn or Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot. The Socialist duo recently leapt on a slip by error prone Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to revive the reasonable doubt alternative.

The slip involves the investigations by Britain’s Porton Down Chemical Weapons Establishment which identified the nerve agent used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The chief executive of Porton Down, Gary Aitkenhead, told Sky News : “We have not verified the precise source” of the nerve agent.  This contradicts Boris Johnson’s interview with a German journalist in which he said that Porton Down had unequivocally identified the source as Russian.

IF (and it is an extremely big IF) the Russians are innocent, then British credibility will nosedive. Putin will be king of the roost.  Boris Johnson would almost certainly resign. Mrs May’s weak government would be dealt a severe blow halfway through Brexit negotiations and 24 other countries will have diplomatic egg on their faces because they trusted her.

But all is not lost for the Brits. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is conducting its own investigation which it is hoped will back British claims. In the meantime, The Russians have convened a meeting of the UN Security Council to protest their innocence and probably repeat their claims that the Salisbury attack was “a grotesque provocation rudely staged by British and American intelligence.

Ruissian cries of foul; another slip-up by banana skin Boris and the Labour Party’s willingness to put its head on the chopping block warrant the re-examination of the evidence,  starting with the question of detectives through the ages: Did the Russians have the means, opportunity and motive? Unfortunately, the answer for Putin and his supporters, is a resounding yes.

Novichok was produced by the Soviet Union between 1971-1993. There are several levels of weapon grade Novichok. They are called Novichok, 5,7,8, and 9. It was grade nine—the powdered variety—that was used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia denies that the Soviet Union ever developed the nerve agent. This is a lie. Several Russian chemists have blown the whistle on Moscow

Now, how about opportunity. According to Russian chemists, Novichok was developed to be the deadliest chemical weapon and the safest to handle. This means that it could have been removed from the production facility at Shikhany,  placed in a suitcase and safely flown Moscow to Salisbury.

Next we look at motive. Sergei Skripal was a Russian traitor who went to prison and was provided with a new life in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies held by the US.  Putin has said: “Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me. These people betrayed their friends and brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

British intelligence is currently investigating the deaths of another 14 Russian dissidents in the UK. It has been conclusively proven that Russian agents used deadly polonium to murder Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London. Putin denies this. He also denies meddling in the US presidential elections, green men in Ukraine, cyberattacks on the -Baltic States, shooting down the Malaysian airliner and bombing aid convoys in Syria.

As Lenin said “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • William Fowler 6th Apr '18 - 9:25am

    As Lenin said “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” That sums up a lot of what is going on in British politics as well, esp Labour front bench. But back to Putin, all we can hope is that one of his henchmen does the decent thing and puts him out of his misery, otherwise may well end up with a repeat of Hitler.

  • I’d decided not to contribute to discussions on LDV, because of the unexplained random removal of my mildly critical posts, but I’m breaking that decision as I note that a post calling for the assassination of a foreign leader is deemed acceptable…

  • I thought the end of the USSR was supposed to end this stuff. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Really it would be far safer to keep up diplomatic relations and ease tensions. Coz apart from anything else Putin is not going to live forever and eventually we will have to find other things to waste money on than outmoded expertise for a war that never materialised with a country that shrank and for which there is certainly no stomach for. It’s empty posturing all round and it’s high time we properly ended the cold war like we should have done when the Soviet Union ceased to exist all those years ago.

  • David Evans 6th Apr '18 - 10:30am

    Expats. I think you will find that Putin isn’t particularly in favour of All Women Shortlists. 🙂

  • David Evans 6th Apr ’18 – 10:30am…
    Thanks, David, for putting things into perspective…. 🙂

    However, one has to love the description of Boris’s escalation of events as just ‘a slip’. Those, in this party, still buying into Boris as, “Oh, it’s just Boris”, to cover for an incompetent bully are the real problem…

  • John Marriott 6th Apr '18 - 10:58am

    The recent events in Salisbury should be a wake up call to us all the West. The way I see it is this. It is pretty clear that the nerve agent was manufactured in Russia, probably but not definitely during the Soviet period. It was clearly administered by someone, possibly to the front door handle of Mr Skripal’s home or even to his BMW’s ventilation system, That’s really all we know, or, at least, that’s all we are being told. It was certainly not as direct as the polonium added to Alexander Litvinenko’s tea in 2006 or the jab with the umbrella tip loaded with ricin that ended the life of Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, in 1978. In both these cases the trail back to the source would appear to be much clearer.

    Now, in the case of the Skripals’ poisoning, only the source of the poison would appear not to be in doubt. So, here are a few ‘theories’ for us to consider. 1. Putin ordered the assassination as pay back and to send a warning to his ‘enemies’. 2. Putin has lost control of the various factions currently calling the shots in Russia, one of whom was responsible for getting hold of the nerve agent and having it administered. 3. Someone high up in Russia with a grudge against Mr Skripal managed to get hold of the agent and used it.

    Either way, Russia appears to have lost control of a deadly substance, which, it would appear that it alone has produced, and is peddling like mad to distance itself from the accusation of negligence and worse. Given the chaos that ensued following the breakup of the Soviet Union, exploited as it was by certain individuals, many of whom now appear to be laundering their financial gains as respectable citizens in the City of London, it isn’t that surprising that nerve agents and other pretty nasty Cold War weapons might have got into the hands of the power brokers, who emerged from the wreckage.

    Given the hubristic way the West reacted to the events of 1989-91, I am not surprised that Russia, instead of feeling welcome here has resorted to the kind of paranoia its predecessor state exhibited over the decades after WW2. Whilst in no way condoning what happened in Salisbury and elsewhere, as highlighted by Mr Arms, I in some way view these events as a direct result of the West’s inability to build bridges with a nation and, more importantly, a people who have been badly served by autocracies of the left and right for many centuries.

  • Churchill’s 1939 comment comes to mind “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

    When Churchill saw that it was in his interest to understand Russia, he did so. But when he failed to see anything in it for him, Russia became a rogue nation in his mind. We are doing the same thing today, and not just with Russia. North Korea is seen as a rogue nation run by a nut job, and Iran is portrayed as not much better.
    Is it not the case that much of our puzzlement is due to our failing to understand North Korea’s and Iran’s perspectives?
    Whenever we find another nation acting in ways that seem like “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it would be well to remember that our perplexity is probably due to our not understanding how they see things. And, in the nuclear age, it is always in our interest to understand other nations as well as we can. Doing that reduces the risk of needless wars, with their attendant needless nuclear risk.

    Russia is undoubtedly engaged in what they call ‘asymmetric warfare’ including an information war in the west. The issue is why does the Russian state consider it in their national interest to do so. While not all Russians support Putin, he does command widespread popular support in Russia and not just in Moscow.

    Russia seems concerned about being contained or having their nuclear missile capability made redundant by the deployment of a anti-ballistic missile system in Europe.

    While we cannot accept a return to imperial spheres of influence or nuclear proliferation, we can redouble efforts to engage in trade, tourism and cultural exchanges with a country that is part and parcel of our European heritage. We may never understand the Russian mind but ultimately we all have to live on the same continent, breathe the same air and drink the same water.

  • William Fowler 6th Apr '18 - 12:24pm

    A fairly clear case of power corrupting the more of it you have and the longer you hold it… and people not learning from history.

  • @ expats. I take it that William Fowler’s most recent comment above – unusually for him – is an expression of support for your post.

    In other words, as stated in the preamble to our party constitution : “We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, ………………… unless it gets too close to home.”

  • The recent events in Salisbury should be a wake up call to us all the West.
    But what sort of wake up call?

    When a few months back some general, who had obviously just woken up, started going on about how the Russians could cut our undersea cables – I just laughed!

    One of the basics of the military is command and control, which translates into protecting your lines of communication: clearly some in the military had been asleep on the job. Thus the wake up call here was that we need to replace senior figures with more able people. In some respects if we go back to WWII, it is interesting that Bletchley Park and it’s sisters, was in part so successful because the traditional career military personnel were kept in the dark about them…

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Apr '18 - 2:26pm

    The physician who dealt with the Skripals at Salisbury Hospital A&E, wrote the following to “The Times” (14/03/18): “–no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury and there have only ever been three patients with significant poisoning. —No member of the public has been contaminated by the agent involved.”

    This statement by an outstandingly important witness demonstrates that the case presented by HMG on this matter is not secure and needs to be questioned before we go further in leading a confrontation with another nuclear power.

    A prime purpose of all opposition parties is to question. This has been done by Mr Corbyn from the outset and not just since Mr Johnson’s “slip”.
    Mr Johnson statement about certainty of provenance was and is an extremely serious error or untruth not just a slip.
    This assertion that it was not just a “slip” is supported by a lack of evident apology.

  • Tony Greaves 6th Apr '18 - 3:21pm

    It seems likely that the Russians had the means (the poison) and they or someone on their behalf had the opportunity (whatever that may mean – anyone in possession of this stuff with a safe means of leaving it somewhere could attack anyone). Whether they had a rational motive is debatable. What is not debatable is whether the evidence trail as released so far tells us who carried out this attack on the Skripals (assuming that is what it was, which seems fairly certain).

    Apart from the description of their journey from house to park bench via the pub and a café, and the discovery of the poison on the door handle, all the evidence that has been so far adduced is circumstantial, and unrelated in a direct way to the event.

    My guess is that some people in high places are panicking at the news that Julia, and possibly her father, will live to tell their story. The question is – in which high places are these people to be found?

  • Regarding Boris’s ‘slip’……Two weeks ago Boris Johnson was asked by an interviewer on Deutsche Walle, Germany’s public international broadcaster, how the UK had been able to find out the novichok originated from Russia so quickly. He replied: “When I look at the evidence, the people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical. I asked the guy myself, I said: ‘Are you sure?’ And he said: ‘There’s no doubt.’ So we have very little alternative but to take the action that we have taken.”

    Subsequently, after scientists examined the sample, ‘those in the know’ stated that, as the victims all survived, the strain used must have been very impure. (If that’s the case why wasn’t the ‘real’ stuff used by Putin?) and that they were unable to establish where the novichok nerve agent used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal was made (Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, Wiltshire, said it had not proved it was created in Russia but would not comment on whether the Porton Down itself had developed or kept stocks of ‘novichok’)

    In such cases it is best to ask, ….
    “Who gains”…With the FIFA world cup only weeks away it seems an odd time for Putin/Russia to want to get such adverse publicity.
    “Why now”..Putin’s election victory was a ‘given’ and, after so many years of opportunity, why wait and get his daughter involved?
    And “Why, if we are still so certain, was the FO tweet removed?

    As for ‘painting’ a door handle? As good a chance of getting a postman or Jehovah Witness as the intended target..

    Finally, did Putin/Russia do it? Very possibly, however, following Corbyn’s route of condemning the attack and waiting for the Porton Down results would have avoided the debacle of the last few days…

  • As far as Boris is concerned his employment record – and his termination of employment record – has been well rehearsed in the media. Soon all this will be yesterday’s news. And Boris will continue as he always has.

  • Dean Crofts 7th Apr '18 - 8:50am

    We have to question the role of due process in all of this – when is it acceptable to bypass law, international law and the rule of evidence in finding any party guilty of an offence.

    The Russians may be hiding something, however they are now reasonably asking for evidence, that the substance used in Salisbury came from Russia, no-one is denying, apart from the Russians, that Russia never had novichok. However why can the evidence not be shared with an international court – with representatives of every world region, not just Nato and the EU – to confirm evidence exists and it was the Russian state that did this.

    So far, it is appearing that it is one governments word against another, and no lib dem has seen the evidence, unless someone in the party has.

    How can we as Lib Dems trust what the Tories say?

    Now the victims are recovering, who has ever recovered from a nerve agent attack? When the authorities are now saying they cannot source the origin of the substance. Who are we to believe? and why as Lib Dems are we not standing up for due process of the law in finding evidence and this being decided via an international court of law?

    We did this re Iraq why have we already folded as a party that does not stand up to the establishment?

  • John Marriott 7th Apr '18 - 9:49am

    Well, I think that we can be pretty certain that what happened wasn’t caused by a dodgy meal at Zizzi’s! When, hopefully, both Skripals recover, they may be able to shed more light on the affair. Clearly, there is someone or some organisation out there with some pretty nasty stuff and the willingness to use it. No amount of Trident submarines are going to prevent this from happening again. Welcome to the Cold War Mark 2. Shall we call it the ‘Sneaky’ War?

    Assuming that Russia is playing a part in this sorry spectacle, as they say, “It takes two to tango”. As I said in my first contribution to this thread, we in the West, the putative ‘winners’ of the great ideological struggle between capitalism and socialism, which engulfed a good part of the 20th century, need to ask ourselves if our attitude to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union could have had anything to do with where we are today.

  • Evidence? It’s sadly lacking in HMG’s case which is riddled with inconsistencies.

    Novichoks were developed in the USSR – at a facility that’s now in Uzbekistan. After 1993 that facility was run by the US as part of it’s effort to keep Soviet weapons from falling into criminal hands. It’s a racing certainty that the US took the opportunity to hoover up that research – c.f. Nazi rocket scientists.

    Formulae have been published online and synthesis is apparently not difficult – within the scope of a competent graduate chemist, the chief risk presumably being self-contamination due to the extreme toxicity which would require very specialised equipment. Note that the Porton Down boss only said “probably a state actor” – a very carefully parsed choice of words. Earlier the most Porton Down scientists would commit to, even under great political pressure, was “of a type developed by Russia”. In other words, they had no idea who made this batch despite Boris’ attempts to persuade people otherwise.

    The theory it was administered via the front door handle is laughable; before that it was the car door, car ventilation and others. And there is no explanation for how a super-deadly nerve agent didn’t take effect on the Skripals for several hours – but then immediately hit the first-responder policeman.

    In other words, HMG doesn’t have a clue how it was done and is making it up as it goes along. Shades of WMD in Iraq.

    AFAIK there is no credible evidence that Russia currently has a chemical weapons programme but there are several countries that have facilities comparable to Porton Down that could make it. Porton Down itself must have made samples and done studies to know how to test for its metabolites.

    As for motive there is AFAIK no known case throughout the cold war or since of a spy who had been caught then exchanged later being assassinated. So, Russia had no motive and moreover would have known it would get blamed if novichoks were used. However, for one of Russia’s several enemies this was the perfect choice of weapon as subsequent events have shown.


  • It now seems that Sergei Skripal’s cat and two hamsters have starved to death? It rather makes a mockery of how well the house was searched…Why weren’t they removed for testing; surely any live animal would be of great importance in looking for traces of a nerve agent?

    Although, if memory serves, we were originally told that they had been removed for tests…
    Now it seems that the cat (and hamsters) were taken away for tests and also locked in the house to starve to death?

    It seems the cat, at least, was of the Schrodinger persuasion

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Apr '18 - 9:01am

    I’m baffled by the logic shown here by some posters.
    1. The door handle is an ideal target area. Jehovahs Witnesses don’t try and get in, they ring the bell. Postmen don’t try and get in either, they push stuff through the letterbox. The assassins know the householder will be the only person who takes hold of the handle.
    2. Once Skripal closes the door behind him what will he touch next? Yes, that’s right the door handle of his car.
    3. Sgt Bailey did not collapse at the scene. He went home and was rushed to hospital later. Roughly after the same length of exposure the Skripals had.
    4. As to motive, won’t “Traitors will kick the bucket” from a man who doesn’t make idle threats do?
    5. If it was over a woman or gambling debts then jealous husbands and criminals tend to use obvious weapons. Like guns. The clear reason that Novichok and polonium 210 are used is to say to traitors, and more importantly, potential traitors “It was us wot dunnit and there will be no hiding place or forgiveness”

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