On March 4th Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the sleepy British city of Salisbury, by forces currently unknown. The British government immediately blamed Russian intelligence, leading to weeks of accusations and counter-accusations, diplomatic expulsions and lots of conspiracy theories about who really did this, and why. In this special episode I take examine the theories, the context and the lies surrounding the poisoning of the Skripals, resisting the temptation to conspiracy theorise myself.
The first big question I have is whether or not Novichok was actually used. This is the one thing almost everyone agrees on, that whoever poisoned the Skripals, they used one of the Novichok family of poisons developed in the Soviet Union. There has been a lot of dispute about why Novichok means that Russia did it, but I’ll get to that, I’m wondering whether it was used at all.
The story of Novichok first came to the public’s attention when Vil Mirzayanov and one of his colleagues began writing about it in the early 1990s. They had worked on the program developing these poisons and were horrified by just how dangerous this stuff was, and blew the whistle. Mirzayanov was then arrested in 1992 and charged with treason for spilling state secrets, though his trial collapsed because he hadn’t revealed the formulas or the locations of laboratories producing these chemical weapons. After a time under house arrest in Russia he relocated to the US, and in 2008 he published State Secrets: An Insider’s Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program, a book containing the recipes for making Novichok.
It has been widely reported, both before the Skripal poisonings and since then, especially by Mirzayanov himself, that these poisons are pretty much the most deadly substances ever created, supposedly five to eight times more poisonous than VX gas. So why are Yulia and Sergei still alive? If they’d been exposed to this stuff in a weaponised form then they should have died within minutes, possibly quicker. Instead, they’re still alive a month later, and according to the supposed phone call between Yulia and her cousin Viktoria there’s no long-term damage, even Sergei is basically fine.
Now, herein lies a big problem for the British government. Viktoria told the BBC that it was her on the call, that she 100% believes it was Yulia she was talking to. The audio was of pretty high quality for an international call, and the recording was played on a Russian state-owned news channel. So it seems this tape is authentic, and the recording was made by Russian intelligence and they gave it to the news channel. If that is Yulia and what she’s saying is true then it seems almost impossible that they were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent.
Something to watch out for as this unfolds is whether Yulia returns to Russia – after all, she’s been living there for years, she was only in the UK to visit her father and almost immediately they were both poisoned. If she goes back, then presumably she doesn’t believe that the government are trying to kill her and/or her father. Assuming the Skripals recover, which didn’t look at all likely until this week, then what they do next will be very telling.
One final point about this taped phone call is that almost immediately after Russian state TV aired the recording, the Met Police issued a statement from Yulia Skripal. When the BBC initially reported the story it was just about the tape, but over time they added to the same article which is now leading with the Met Police statement, the bland one about hoping to be out of hospital soon and thanking everyone on the planet. Almost like the idea was to smother the story about the tape and confuse the tape with the statement. Likewise, Sergei is apparently alive and well, and not still in critical condition.
Another question is how was the poison delivered? Mirzayanov says he hasn’t a clue how to weaponise the Novichok poisons, that simply containing them in the labs was problematic enough. Three completely different but equally stupid scenarios have been proposed, from what I’ve read.
1) The Novichok was hidden in Yulia Skripal’s luggage, possibly inside her make-up. If this were true, which is almost certainly isn’t, then it implies Yulia was the target, because you don’t try to poison someone by putting poison in someone else’s luggage. But if she was the target, why not kill her in Russia? ‘Ex spy’s daughter disappears in Moscow’ is a lot less interesting a story than ‘Ex spy and daughter poisoned with military-grade nerve agent in anonymous English town’. Also, what if someone opened her luggage at the airport, either when she left Russia or when she arrived in England? You might accidentally end up poisoning some random airport security employees. It’s just not a plausible way for an intelligence agency to do something like this.
2) The Novichok was in the vents of the car that Sergei and Yulia used to drive into Salisbury for dinner the evening they were found on the park bench. Again, this would be a pretty unreliable, unpredictable way to try to deliver a poison, and I’ve seen no reports of any trace of the stuff being found in the car. And again, if this stuff is as deadly as we’re led to believe then those two would have been found dead in the car, not alive hours later somewhere nearby.
3) The Novichok was smeared on the door or the door handle of Sergei Skripal’s home. Again, a stupid way to try to deliver a poison, again extremely risky that you kill the wrong person, again no reports of any trace of the stuff on the door, and of course they have not brought the door in for questioning. In fact, there are quite a lot of pictures of police officers stood outside the house in the days after the pair were found, some leaning against the door. Then, two weeks into the investigation, the police start anonymously briefing journalists that they think the poison might have been on that door all along? You’d have to be stupid to believe this, but quite a lot of people are stupid.
Then there’s the issue of the government’s reaction to all this. The three victims – the Skripals and the policeman who found them – were all treated in Salisbury hospital. But there have been basically no interviews with medical staff, just the occasional statement about them being in ‘critical but stable condition’. No indication of special measures at the hospital to contain the poison, no indication of decontamination being necessary, no indication of what kind of treatment the victims received or of them being in a special unit.
Compare that to Salisbury itself, where after several days they called in 180 soldiers and dozens of military vehicles to supposedly deal with the possible contamination. This was done with a huge amount of media coverage, though absolutely nothing came from the story. There was very little follow-up showing the military bravely dealing with suspected nerve agent-contaminated locations or items. The government issued statements suggesting as many as 500 people could have been exposed to Novichok, while simultaneously telling them not to worry and to just wash the clothes they were wearing that night.
Does this sound like a realistic response to an unprecedented use of the deadliest nerve agent known to humankind? Because it doesn’t sound like that to me. Almost all of the available information suggests the opposite – that whatever was used to poison the Skripals, it wasn’t especially deadly and could have been delivered in a much more safe way than Russian intelligence carrying the stuff hundreds of miles and trying to sneak around Salisbury smearing it on door handles.
Poisoning the Skripals – Crime and Prejudice
Another major problem with the Novichok story is that the government jumped the gun, announcing that Novichok was used and that this conclusively proved Russian responsibility within days of the poisoning happening. This was before the scientists at Porton Down – conveniently about 8 miles up the road from where the Skripals were found – had said anything about what they’d discovered. This was before the OPCW, the world experts in chemical weapons, had joined the investigation to help Porton Down figure out what they were dealing with.
Which, tying back to the previous section, begs the question of how the Skripals were treated. After all, if Porton Down weren’t sure what the poison was, even though Theresa Mayhem and Boris Johnson were, how could the hospital know how to treat the victims? There isn’t some wonder drug that you just give to anyone exposed to any kind of nerve agent. In fact, most nerve agents are so effective that developing drugs to treat people for them is almost pointless, because you can give all the drugs you want to a bubbling corpse, it won’t accomplish anything.
Even now, with Porton Down saying that they have no evidence as to who manufactured the poison, the government’s response has been to say that no one else had a motive and it must have been Russia anyway. There have been stories recently about the British government sharing unprecedented intelligence with friendly nations to encourage them to expel a few diplomats too. Why is it always unprecedented? Oh, to make it seem like this is something special that we’re not allowed to see, rather than the regular stuff we’re not allowed to see.
One set of briefing slides has been leaked, and frankly it’s laughable. It looks like something put together by a 17 year old media studies student, with childish infographics and bullet-point lists. It’s like if you read one of those books that teaches 70 year olds how to make a really simple powerpoint presentation.
Not just that but it contains blatant factual errors. It says that military-grade Novichok was positively identified by Porton Down scientists. But at that time Porton Down was only saying it was ‘of a type developed by Russia’. It goes on to say that Novichok is a group of agents developed only by Russia, which is a half-truth. The Soviet Union developed them, but we know that other countries have produced them. Iran produced some last year, under the auspices of the OPCW. And if Iran is experimenting with them then you know that Israel is also doing so, because those two nations despise and fear each other so obviously.
Meanwhile, how could Porton Down scientists positively identify Novichok unless they knew what they were looking for? That is to say, unless they had samples themselves. So it’s fortunate that our Foreign Secretary confirmed that they do, in an interview on German TV where he accused the Russians of having an ‘increasingly bizarre’ position on things. Pot, Kettle.
Since then, Porton Down chief executive Gary Aitkenhead was interviewed on Sky News, and he said that it was ‘Novichok, or of that family’, which makes little sense since Novichok is the name of the family of poisons.
The briefing slides continue, saying that no country apart from Russia has the intent, motive and capability. In reality, it hasn’t been demonstrated that anyone has successfully weaponised Novichok in a way that could be used in an attempted assassination like this. It has been demonstrated that other countries have the ability to make the stuff, and indeed according to Mirzayanov anyone with an organic chemistry degree, the right organophosphates and a copy of his book with the formulas in could make these poisons.
Intent and motive appear to be essentially the same thing, after all you don’t have intent to do something that you’re not motivated to do. But they wanted a three-point argument and obviously the civil servant they gave the job to couldn’t remember the phrase ‘means, motive, opportunity’. As I say, the means and opportunity are dubious for anyone, given how dangerous these poisons are meant to be. Smuggling them around and deploying them would be very difficult for anyone, and it hasn’t been shown that anyone has that ability, even though quite a lot of people could produce the poisons in the first place.
Which leaves motive. Does it really make sense for the Russian state to kill someone that they could have killed far more easily and quietly, when they had him in prison in Russia only a few years ago? Does it make any sense to do it in such a headline-grabbing way, when they could have just shot him, or strangled him, or thrown him off a bridge? And why do it just before the Russian presidential election and only a couple of months before the World Cup, the biggest PR event in Russia in decades?
Naturally, the government briefing ignores all of that and instead prefers the same sort of absurd conspiracy theorising as Luke Harding, which I discussed in the Russiagate episode. Just as he strung together a series of allegations against the Russian government as his justification for making allegations against the Russian government, so did the British government. If it’s good enough for a hack journalist then it’s good enough for MI5.
Slide four of the briefing includes a timeline of ‘malign Russian activity’ going back to 2006 and the assassination of Litvinenko, obviously. Gotta get that one in there. Then there’s the accusation that in 2007 Russian-state DDOS attacks temporarily took down Estonia’s internet. Which may be true, but is not evidence of them poisoning people in Salisbury. Then in 2008, the invasion of Georgia which was an act of aggression by Russia but it was an extremely limited war, especially compared to all the ones the UK is still involved in. It then fast-forwards 6 years to the occupation of Crimea, the shooting down of MH-17, hacking the US election and the Danish Ministry of Defense and some other stuff.
This is pure conspiracy theory. It takes a series of allegations – some of which are probably true, some of which aren’t – and uses them as the rationale for another allegation. Just like a 9/11 truth video they line up 10 suspicious things, and the 11th is the one they’re trying to convince you of. Each individual thing is ripped out of context and presented in the most hostile and suspicious light, to ensure maximum psychological effectiveness and minimum rational function.
And it is effective. I was explaining to customers at my old job the other day about how there’s nothing specifically tying the use of Novichok to the Russian government, and all that came back was a bunch of ‘yes, but I suspect they did it anyway because, y’know, Putin…’. Because people have this perception of Russia and Putin, it doesn’t take much to convince them to suspect Russia without any proof, or even with obvious lies. Admittedly, it doesn’t help that the Russian government has issued contradictory statements about all this and that they made this horrible stuff in the first place, but I don’t see why they would do this, in this way, at this time. But of course, conspiracy theories don’t have to be plausible.
And this is where pop culture comes in. As some critics of this story have pointed out, there is a storyline in the 6th season of Strike Back that somewhat mirrors what’s going on. This series broadcast last autumn in the UK and in February and March in the US, and features a whole Russian-Novichok storyline. Alongside that you have the new season of Homeland, which opens with a traitor being covertly assassinated by Russian intelligence with some kind of secretive poison that causes heart attacks, and where the only Russian defector in the entire series is killed, on Western soil, by Russian agents.
Obviously Homeland is still state-sponsored, I am not sure if Strike Back is but it is based on the novels by ex-SAS and probable MI5 officer Chris Ryan, who is a consultant on the series, and they have employed Paul Hornsby as a military technical adviser, a guy who has worked on several major British military-sponsored productions including Wonder Woman and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
So I’m left wondering, are the British state being fooled by their own covert propaganda? Because it seems they truly believe this obviously contradictory and mostly baseless story they’re telling, they seem to have bought into the neurosis concerning Russia just like so many others. We’ve been conditioned by the news agenda and by entertainment propaganda into a mindset that makes us more likely to believe this official story about the Salisbury poisoning, but so have the government.
The Politics of a Poisoning
All of which brings us neatly to the politics of this situation. Within days Theresa Mayhem pointed the finger and said ‘Russia Russia Russia!’. Jeremy Corbyn, the loyal opposition leader, initially asked for some evidence but was then widely criticised so he wrote a Guardian article saying ‘Russia Russia Russia! (but don’t start WW3)’. After it emerged a few days ago that Porton Down think it is Novichok but have no evidence of where it came from, Labour have turned around and patted themselves on the back for initially questioning the official story and then backing down.
To be clear, Corbyn was initially sceptical, then he gave in to media pressure and said ‘yes, it was Russia in some way’ before it emerged that there’s no evidence that it was Russia whereupon he turned around and said ‘I told you I was right’. His opposition has been pathetic, as it always is on national security issues. This whole episode reminded me of his doublespeak after the Manchester bombing, when he was saying that spending more money on the police and MI5 was the answer. His heart may be in the right place, but I’m not convinced his brain is, and his spine seems to be absent entirely.
Internationally, most nations are falling into line and expelling a few diplomats. Even Trump got on board and chucked a few random Russian spies out of the US, who will no doubt have been replaced already. Besides, as we know from Homeland it isn’t the spies working out of the embassy who are killing double agents and spreading fake news to undermine democracy and whatnot.
While, no doubt, a lot of people see this as an appropriate and tough response, in reality it only exposes how impotent countries are in the face of something like this. Let’s assume for a moment that this was a Russian state-sponsored hit that somehow went wrong and failed to kill either of the primary targets. Let’s assume that this is Schrodinger’s Assassination – simultaneously a vicious, ruthless attack by devilish Russians wielding the most lethal nerve agent known to man, and also the most bungled attempt to kill someone in human history using a substance that has left the targets with no lasting damage.
What should be the response to this? We could always kill one of their spies, I’m sure there are some knocking around Western Europe, we can’t have expelled all of them. We could take the issue to the International Criminal Court, though it’d probably take 17 years and even then we’d discover we prosecuted the wrong Russian hitman. We could take the evidence to the UN and watch them make a ruling that the Russian government would politely accept but privately laugh at. Or we could expel 76 Soviet diplomats and make a big fuss about doing so, as though it’s the spies in the embassy who are doing clinical wetwork in Wiltshire.
I mean, we could always investigate this like a crime and try to figure out what happened and who did it, before we did any of the above, but as if that’s going to happen. And it’s too late now anyway, the investigation has a foregone conclusion. So I’m not sure what is left for us to do about this – I’ve been watching this story evolve and then fall apart in slow motion for several weeks and at no point have I felt at all sure about what I was watching. While people have hypothesised different potential culprits, including British intelligence and Israeli and American intelligence, all of which are perfectly plausible, I have no idea. I’ve no idea how this was done or who did it, I just know that the official version on both counts is vague, contradictory and mostly without foundation. That doesn’t mean that its ultimate conclusion is wrong, because even a prejudiced, retarded clock is right twice a day.