OPINION

The Skripals in Salisbury

The nerve toxin attack on double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia has led to a full-blown diplomatic crisis between Russia and the U.K. Personel leave after swabbing railings at the shopping centre in Salisbury where the two were found unconscious on a beach.AFP

The nerve toxin attack on double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia has led to a full-blown diplomatic crisis between Russia and the U.K. Personel leave after swabbing railings at the shopping centre in Salisbury where the two were found unconscious on a beach.AFP  

Britain’s politics and diplomacy are in turmoil after the attack on a Russian double agent

When asked to defend his response in the U.K. Parliament to Prime Minister Theresa May’s condemnation of the “unlawful use of force” by the Russian state against Britain, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told a television channel last week, “What I was asking were questions... That’s what Oppositions are there for.” An appetite for scrutiny appeared to be severely lacking in the British establishment as Mr. Corbyn was excoriated by those within and outside his party for failing to immediately endorse Ms. May’s stance. Instead, he asked whether the government had responded to Russia’s requests for a sample of the nerve agent, and whether there still remained a possibility that Russia had “negligently lost control” of the military-grade nerve agent, which Britain believes was used against former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Tough rhetoric appeared to be the order of the day as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson virtually accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of masterminding the Salisbury attack, while Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson chucked aside diplomatic norms and told Russia to “go away” and “shut up”.

Diplomatic stand off

From a local story about two people slumped unconscious on a beach outside a shopping centre on March 4, the Skripals incident has rapidly spun into an diplomatic stand off. Britain and Russia are now engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, and Britain has withdrawn from all top-level official dialogue with Russia. Falling back into the old east-west fault lines, the U.K., Germany, France and the U.S. jointly decried the first “offensive use” of a nuclear weapon in Europe since the Second World War, firmly pointing the finger at Russia. Initial caution by some — notably France which had first said it would wait for evidence — gave way to unwavering certainty. With the nerve agent having been identified as being part of Russia’s Novichok nerve agent programme (dating back to the Soviet days), there were only two possibilities: either the nerve agent, judged to be several times as powerful as VX or Sarin, had been deployed by the Russian state or had fallen out of its hands.

Russia’s reaction, alongside denying the allegations, has been to question the methods deployed by the U.K. in its response. The setting of a midnight deadline for Russia to “explain itself” didn’t follow the protocol established under the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’s Convention, for a joint investigation before judgment is passed. Speaking during the hastily arranged meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Russia’s Vassily Nebenzia accused Britain of being afraid of a “genuine professional discussion on the topic” by choosing the political forum of the Security Council rather than the expert body at The Hague to level its accusations and seek backing. It was also just last year that the OPCW, winner of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, participated in a ceremony on the completion of operations at the Kizner Chemical Weapons Destruction Facility, marking the full destruction of 39,967 metric tonnes of chemical weapons that the Soviet Union had possessed.

The landmark should have raised questions, given Britain’s very recent past, and the Chilcot report in particular. Published in July 2016, the damning report by Sir John Chilcot pointed to grave errors made by British intelligence services in their assessment of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programme, which was used to make the case for the second Iraq War of 2003. “At no stage was the proposition that Iraq might no longer have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined,” the report noted.

Mr. Corbyn said in an article in The Guardian last week: “I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times. Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion.” He warned against resignation to a “new cold war of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.”

Predictably, Mr. Corbyn has been accused of a long-standing softness towards Russia. This is particularly ironic as it is the Labour Party that has been pushing for a toughening of Britain’s ability to impose sanctions on individuals, through the introduction of legislation on par with the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act. Named after an auditor who uncovered massive tax fraud but died in detention in Russia, the law allows asset freezes and denial of visas to those accused of human rights abuses, and was signed into law by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012. “We must also expose the flows of ill-gotten cash between the Russian state and billionaires who become stupendously rich by looting their country and subsequently use London to protect their wealth,” Mr. Corbyn told MPs.

Questions to both countries

Without doubt, there are many questions that need to be asked of Russia. Alongside the 2006 poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, 14 deaths in London over the past 10 years have been linked to Russia. A BuzzFeed investigation said these deaths had raised suspicions among U.S. intelligence figures, despite not being ruled as suspicious by British police forces. On Friday, police launched a murder investigation into the death of Nikolai Glushkov, a Kremlin critic, at his home in London though there is no evidence linking this to the illness of the Skripals. An interview with Vil Mirzayanov, a Russian scientist who alerted the West to the existence of Novichok when he defected in the 1990s, told the Voice of America last week that since the programme had not been declared to the OPCW, it would not have the tools to detect it.

But there are many issues that need to be raised in Britain too. Can it truly exclude the possibility of the agent coming from another source or having fallen into the hands of others? And what is the logic of Russia taking action against a former double agent, who was one of 10 agents who had been returned to the West in a spy swap eight years ago? What role could the presidential elections and the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Russia (now not to be attended by British officials or members of the Royal Family) have played in any decision to act?

Crucially, is Britain’s response the most effective one? Its regulatory environment has provided an ideal habitat for foreign illicit money, including from Russia, to take root and thrive. This is one of the factors that has made it particularly vulnerable to such attacks. Action on this would surely hurt far more.

This, and Britain’s intelligence history, should surely provide ample room for public debate, and calm analysis for following internationally established protocols for action.

vidya.ram@thehindu.co.in

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