This morning I woke up to news that:
Yulia Skripal, the daughter of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, is improving rapidly and no longer in a critical condition, says the hospital treating her.
The BBC understands from separate sources that Ms Skripal is conscious and talking.
However Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition, Salisbury District Hospital said.
Doctors said Ms Skripal, “has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day”.
Which comes as a bit of a surprise. A couple of weeks back we were told that this was a “weapons grade” nerve agent (as opposed to the sort you hand around at parties) and multiple times more deadly than sarin. Since then we’ve had the policeman who was exposed walking out of hospital, and now one of the principle victims is sitting up in bed, probably complaining about NHS food.
On Wednesday, police said the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent at the former Russian spy’s home in Salisbury.
Forensic tests show the highest concentration was found on the front door.
From what I can tell, the nerve agent was smeared on the door handle of the Skripals’ home. As a way of exposing someone to it, this seems risky. What if it washed off in the rain? What if the target wore gloves? What if a visitor turned up, taking the bulk of the poison away with them, and you end up killing the wrong person? Now I don’t know anything about murdering people, let alone with nerve agents, but there’s no denying this job was botched. Neither of the intended victims is dead and one seems to be making a reasonable recovery.
The whole thing sounds rather amateurish to me, something you wouldn’t normally associate with FSB assassins. Now Russians do botch jobs: if you’d have hired a chap to fix the electrics in a flat in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2007 chances are he’d have shown up with a carrier bag containing some ancient tools, two of which were lump hammers (the second one is his screwdriver), and a couple of weeks later you’d open up the junction box to find a fork in place of the fuse. But when it comes to knocking off political opponents at the behest of the president, Russians tend to get the job done properly. So it’s all a bit strange.
In addition, as I’ve already made pretty clear on this blog, I haven’t yet heard a plausible theory as to why Putin would order this hit and this method would be used. Various theories might work if it were one or the other, but the two combined leave us mainly with complex conspiracies which claim to know the inner workings of Putin’s mind and portray him as some kind of villain from a Batman film.
Now here’s what worries me. The BBC said the police are interested in speaking to Yulia Skripal once she’s well enough to answer their questions. Well yeah, I bet they are. But are they more interested in hearing what she has to say or making sure whatever she says fits the narrative the government assembled long before she woke up? You can be sure that whatever she says, the public will be told nothing that will make the government or police look bad.
I don’t believe governments and police departments engage in complex conspiracies from scratch, starting with a blank piece of paper. But I do believe they would burn whole neighbourhoods to the ground to cover up their own incompetence, or maintain a narrative once they’ve set the ball rolling in a particular direction. We are now in the middle of a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Russia into which we’ve roped several other countries, and it is still escalating. Now we find one of the two key persons is able to talk for the first time, perhaps shedding vital new light on what happened. Let’s face it, nobody has the slightest idea what she might say. Could we not have waited a little bit?
I know there are people out there who think any delay in issuing accusations, threats, and ultimatums would have “played into Russia’s hands”, but they seem awfully blasé about this whole thing. Contrast this with when MH-17 got shot down and Putin was visibly shaken, until he realised that what passes for EU leadership was not about to jeopardise business opportunities in Russia just for the sake of a couple of hundred dead passengers, and Obama might have to make a decision. Then they launched an absolute whirlwhind of disinformation, knowing full well they were culpable. This time they seem content with straight-faced denials and heavy sarcasm. They’re acting like they know full well they had nothing to do with it and at some point Britain and its allies are going to have egg all over their faces.
Of course I might be wrong, but I believe I’m justified in thinking the British government would stop at absolutely nothing to ensure this doesn’t happen, the truth be damned. I hope Yulia Skripal has a decent lawyer present when she talks to the police, one that is representing her interests and not the government’s. Who is representing the public’s interest in all this is anyone’s guess.