Poisoned Dialogue: Skripal Case Descends into a Propaganda War
EUROPE, 16 Apr 2018
In its rush to assign guilt to Moscow for the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the British government now finds itself on the defensive. Some German politicians have their doubts.
7 Apr 2018 – A voice from someone still thought to be gravely ill could be heard on Russian television on Thursday. It allegedly belonged to Yulia Skripal, the daughter of the former spy Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned together with her father in the English town of Salisbury five weeks ago. She was apparently speaking on the phone from a British hospital with her Russian relatives.
“Everything’s okay,” said the voice. “Everything can be solved, everything can be healed.” In reference to her father, the voice said: “He’s resting now, he’s sleeping. Everyone’s health is okay. Nothing irreversible happened.”
It hasn’t yet been confirmed that the voice did in fact belong to Yulia Skripal, and the question likewise remains open as to whether it was really her relatives who recorded the call. It is indeed surprising that the daughter of Sergei Skripal is already able to speak on the phone following the nerve toxin attack. Did she perhaps receive a lower dose than first thought? The Russia government immediately demanded clarification.
The alleged telephone call was just the most recent twist at the end of a turbulent week in which Britain suddenly found itself under growing pressure to provide more substantial evidence for the accusations it has leveled at Moscow. The facts of the case, of course, haven’t changed much since British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a caustic speech before the House of Commons three weeks ago. In that address, she said that British intelligence considered it “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attack, in part because the substance in question, Novichok, was developed in the former Soviet Union. It was the first use of such a chemical weapon in Europe since the end of World War II. Britain’s allies in NATO and in the European Union quickly issued statements expressing support for May’s position.
Nevertheless, London found itself on the defensive this week — initially because of an interview, then because of a tweet and finally because of Boris Johnson, Britain’s perpetually impetuous foreign secretary.
The interview in question was between Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, and the broadcaster Sky News. Aitkenhead said that the substance used had been identified as a military-grade variant of the nerve agent Novichok, but that the laboratory could not identify its precise origin. He added that such a determination was not DSTL’s “job.” The result was numerous headlines claiming that the British government was unable to prove that the nerve agent originated in Russia. Yet Aitkenhead also said that in making its determination regarding the substance’s source, the British government had relied on information from the country’s intelligence services. And he said that it was likely that only a state actor was in a position to deploy such a nerve agent. That message, though, was largely drowned out by the noise created by the headlines.
Then, the British Foreign Office deleted a tweet in which it falsely claimed that the DSTL had in fact verified the source of the Novichok. The Russian Embassy in London immediately chose to interpret that to mean that Britain had something to hide — and the deletion was sent out as a push notification from newsrooms around the world. The Foreign Office had ignored a fundamental rule of the digital battlefield: Only amateurs delete problematic tweets.
Finally, it was the turn of Boris Johnson, who has spent weeks launching attacks on Russia that are far more bellicose than those of his prime minister. He has claimed on several occasions that DSTL had identified the source of the Novichok used in the attack despite the inaccuracy of such claims. And he has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the attack himself.
Britain’s definitive accusations against Russia have faced a significant problem from the very beginning: There is no definitive evidence that the Russia state is behind the attempted murder. There is only a long chain of strong indications. That lack of clear evidence opens the door to a propaganda war — and Russia has a certain amount of experience in this métier. After all, the country has been waging a permanent propaganda war for the last several years.
It was the case in 2014 when the first little green men appeared in the Crimea and when a passenger jet was shot down by pro-Russian separatists over eastern Ukraine. It was true in 2017, when the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, which enjoys Russia’s protection, deployed sarin in an attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun — here, too, there was no definitive proof. In each instance, Russia unleashed a storm of wild theories that had the primary goal of sowing confusion. In the above cases, though, clear proof did ultimately emerge that Russia or its allies were behind the incidents. The Skripal case, however, could prove to be more complicated.
A More Strident Chord
And now, Britain’s blundering is threatening to erode the solidarity of what had been a more or less united European front. London already encountered difficulty in getting countries like Italy and Greece to support accusations of guilt against Moscow in the statements they released on the attack, and not all European countries have been in favor of expelling Russian diplomats. Now, skeptical politicians in Germany have likewise begun speaking up. On Tuesday, North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Armin Laschet, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a close confidant of the chancellor’s, tweeted: “If you force almost all NATO member states to show solidarity, shouldn’t you also have clear proof?”
Thus far, there hasn’t been much criticism leveled against the German government’s path from politicians belonging to the coalition parties. Even the Social Democrats (SPD), traditionally more of a pro-Russian party, have been largely silent. But some members of the center-left party now believe their initial concerns about Germany’s recently appointed foreign minister, Heiko Maas, a member of the SPD, were justified. Maas began his tenure by striking a much more strident chord on Russia than had his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel.
For Burkhard Lischka, the SPD’s domestic policy spokesman, the information he has seen is not enough to justify quick and decisive measures against Russia. “I do wonder why the chancellor also immediately jumped on the bandwagon. It could turn into a boomerang if the ongoing investigation does not confirm current suspicions,” Lischka says. “As a lawyer, I have a more sober view. In court, you would say: Yes, those are strong clues, but they are far from sufficient.”
German parliamentarian Axel Schäfer, an SPD member who has long been engaged in European Union affairs, is even more explicit. “Statements from British ministers who lied extensively about Brexit should be approached with caution,” he says. “A Russian background to the poison attack is certainly plausible, but not inevitable.” The “massive Western reaction,” Schäfer says, “was extremely rushed, hopefully it wasn’t premature.”
But the British government finds itself under pressure at home as well. Jeremy Corbyn, head of the Labour Party, criticized May’s certainty from the very beginning. Just how dangerous the situation could become for May became apparent this week when the BBC interviewed Security Minister Ben Wallace and compared the Skripal case to the trauma of the Iraq War. In 2003, British troops joined the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the strength of faulty intelligence information regarding Baghdad’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Salisbury is a completely different situation, Wallace told the BBC, saying that it was clear that a chemical agent had been used in the attack. Regarding who was behind the attack, he said: “We can say that all roads lead to Russia, that we are beyond reasonable doubt that the Russian state is behind this.” But the role of those who must prove beyond the shadow of a doubt something that is difficult to prove is much more difficult than the role of those seeking to spread that doubt.
No Plausible Alternative
From the perspective of most Western experts, the situation is as follows: Even if it is not 100 percent certain that Russia is behind the Novichok attack, that explanation remains much more likely than any other explanation. There is simply no plausible alternative at the moment, they agree.
German security officials point out that in intelligence, there is almost never such a thing as definitive evidence. Assumptions and probabilities always play a role. And ultimately, it isn’t the agencies themselves that appraise the information, but the governments on behalf of which the information is gathered. The origin of the weapon used, the details of the crime and the motive are all part of constructing a reasonable explanation — and taken together, say senior German security experts, those elements clearly point to Russia.
Britain presented such an explanation both to its partners within the European Union and to its NATO allies in Brussels. According to a senior official, the evidence was “credible but there was no ‘smoking gun.'”
According to reports, the first part of the presentation consisted of a mass spectrometry analysis of the nerve agent used, a process which involves comparing the substance to a “library” of chemical compounds as a means of identification. The result was a determination that the liquid variant of Novichok, known as A-234, was used. The origin can only be clearly established when the sample is of sufficient quality and when a reference sample from the source laboratory is on hand.
The second part focused on the public threats from Russia that it is intent on killing defectors, as it did in 2006 with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko using polonium. Russia’s history of provocation and disinformation likewise played a role in the presentation.
The third part, according to reports, consisted of unspecified information gathered by British intelligence, either by spies or intercepted communications.
But there is plenty of disagreement as to just how reliable the evidence is in the Skripal case, and that disagreement is also present in the German security community. Many officials believe that it is extremely likely that Russia is behind the nerve agent attack. One security source, though, says that the British “have gotten ahead of themselves for understandable reasons.” The evidence thus far provided, he says, is “extremely thin” and, while it may be enough to point the finger at Russia, it is not sufficient to blame the Russian government. It is, says the security source, “astonishing that an international solidarity movement has come into existence on the basis of such meager evidence.” The Russian government could indeed be behind the attack, the critic says, but so too could renegades within Russian intelligence agencies who acted on their own — or even organized crime, which, the security source adds, is closely linked to security agencies.
Derision, Mockery and Cynicism
One thing is clear: There is hardly a chemical weapon around that more clearly points to Moscow’s involvement than Novichok, a group of agents that was developed in extreme secrecy in the Soviet Union. The agents were produced in the town of Shikhany on the Volga River for use in battle, says scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who publicized the existence of the agents in 1992 and later published elements of the formula used to manufacture them.
The divulgence of the program triggered extreme concern among Western experts at the time and raised a number of urgent questions: Can our sensors detect the agent? Is our protective equipment good enough? What exactly are the substance’s effects? German security experts are unsure whether Western countries subsequently produced the substance themselves to test it and to try out antidotes. The British chemical weapons expert Alistair Hay says: “I’d be surprised if chemical defense laboratories didn’t produce at least small amounts of the stuff.” He too thinks it probable that the toxin used in Salisbury came from a source that is a state actor. The experts in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, Hay notes, established that the substance used was military grade. “That means it was extremely pure,” Hay says. “You can’t brew something like that at home in your sink.”
For the political evaluation in Germany and Britain, the behavior of Russia following the attack is likewise instructive. Instead of expressing dismay at the use of a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union and immediately offering assistance in the investigation, the only thing that came out of Moscow was derision, mockery and cynical comments. In the Russian media, alternative explanations and conspiracy theories have been making the rounds, many of which end with the conclusion that Britain itself was behind the attack. A suspect that seeks to obfuscate instead of cooperating tends to intensify suspicion — but additional support from sympathizers is likely also a consequence.
For weeks, the Russians have been hammering away at weaknesses in the British argumentation and now, that strategy has begun to show at least some results. If the British don’t release additional details or evidence, there is a danger that the Skripal case will become a matter of faith rather than of fact.
A Message to Would-Be Defectors
Should that happen, the West will find itself in the uncomfortable position of having drawn a line in the sand over a case that will forever be in doubt — consistent with the constant Russian claims that they are nothing but the victims of the West. In the worst case, such a scenario could even threaten the Western alliance’s unity on other issues as well.
The findings of the British investigation thus far apparently continue to rely heavily on indications rather than solid evidence. According to media reports, investigators believe that the toxin was smeared on the door handle of Skripal’s home. According to British sources cited by the New York Times, the operation is considered to be “so risky and sensitive that it is unlikely to have been undertaken without approval from the Kremlin.” Only a professional trained in handling chemical weapons, the British authorities told the paper, could have applied the toxin to the door handle in such a manner that they could be reasonably certain that it would poison their target.
According to the New York Times, the British also believe that the perpetrators intentionally used a toxin that would clearly point to Russia as a way of sending a message to other would-be defectors or informants.
And how is it possible that Skripal and his daughter are still alive and apparently convalescing? If the toxin is absorbed through the skin, experts say, the effect is much weaker. If, for example, the target noticed that the door handle was wet when grabbing it and then wiped that hand off, the effect could have been compromised.
The Russian Embassy is now demanding to be allowed to visit Yulia Skripal in the hospital and the Russians want to bring her home to Moscow as quickly as possible. From a propaganda perspective, at least, there could hardly be anything more valuable than a recovered Yulia Skripal on Russian television decisively rejecting the theory of Russian responsibility for the attack.
By Markus Becker, Christian Esch, Matthias Gebauer, Christoph Hickmann, Martin Knobbe, Valentyna Polunina, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Scheuermann, Jörg Schindler and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
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