And now it’s murder

Oh:

Police have launched a murder inquiry after a woman exposed to nerve agent Novichok in Wiltshire died.

Dawn Sturgess, 44, died in hospital on Sunday evening after falling ill on 30 June.

Charlie Rowley, 45, who was also exposed to the nerve agent in Amesbury, remains critically ill in hospital.

Theresa May said she was “appalled and shocked” by the death, which comes after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

Which comes four months after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. So, what are the likely scenarios here:

1. Putin ordered the Skripals murdered by Novichok, and four months later put the hit on a couple of nobodies in the same area. If someone – anyone – wants to come up with a plausible theory as to why he’d do this, I’m all ears.

2. Putin ordered the Skripals murdered by  Novichok, and somehow two nobodies ran into the same stuff by accident four months later. As Jason Lynch (who, incidentally, should be leading the investigation) points out in the comments, this is not implausible and consistent with a nerve agent being trampled around the place. However, unless a clear link between the two cases can be established, e.g. a common location between each victim, it’s going to be hard to convince people – especially Russians – that this is the same case. So far, it’s not looking good:

In a statement, the Met Police said the possibility the poisoning of the Skripals and Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley are linked is a “clear line of inquiry”.

A spokesman said the investigators are “not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skirpals were exposed to”.

He also said: “There is no evidence that (Ms Sturgess and Mr Rowley) visited any of the sites that were decontaminated following the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March.”

3. The two cases are separate attacks, and nothing to do with Putin.

Combined with my skepticism over the initial attack, I’m going with No. 3. I don’t know what the actual cause is – someone gone rogue at Porton Down? – but hopefully now a murder enquiry has been launched, we’ll find out:

Mr Basu said the death “has only served to strengthen our resolve to identify and bring to justice the person or persons responsible for what I can only describe as an outrageous, reckless and barbaric act”.

He said: “Detectives will continue with their painstaking and meticulous work to gather all the available evidence so that we can understand how two citizens came to be exposed with such a deadly substance that tragically cost Dawn her life.”

Now I hope this is true. But I don’t have much confidence that, should the evidence start pointing in a direction which might cause Theresa May and her government considerable embarrassment, it won’t be buried without trace. I suspect the outcome of the investigation will be an inconclusive fudge with just enough wriggle-room to keep blaming Russia.

Share

Starichok

Well this is interesting:

A man and woman found unconscious in Wiltshire were exposed to Novichok – the same nerve agent that poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal, police say.

The couple, believed to be Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, fell ill at a house in Amesbury on Saturday and remain in a critical condition.

[T]here is no evidence to suggest either visited the sites that were decontaminated following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March.

Now the British government, and many on this blog, declared that the use of Novichok in the Skripal case indisputably meant the substance came from Russia and therefore Putin’s government was behind the attack. Indeed, this is the precise accusation Theresa May levelled at Putin, who laughed it off. As readers may recall, I believe May’s actions were hasty and the Russians’ flippant response was possibly an indication it was nothing to do with them. This was poo-pooed on the grounds that only Putin could order a Novichok hit and had every reason to want Sergei Skripal dead.

So in light of these recent developments, I hope someone has a plausible reason as to why Putin – for it must surely be he – now wants two more people in Wiltshire killed with Novichok. It’s going to be somewhat embarrassing if we discover there are people other than Putin playing with Soviet-era nerve agents in the UK, isn’t it?

Share

Europe’s choices over Iran

A response from Germany following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that Europe can no longer count on the United States to protect it, urging the continent to “take destiny into its own hands.”

“It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That’s the task of the future,” she said during a speech honoring French President Emmanuel Macron, according to Agence France-Presse.

This will be music to the ears of many Americans, who are wondering why the US remains committed to defending Germany from…well, who? Russia? Germans have made it quite clear they prefer Putin’s Russia to Trump’s America, and who else is there? Oh, but wait:

German defense spending will fall far short of levels demanded by President Donald Trump’s administration for years to come, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense minister said.

Those levels are actually NATO commitments; Trump’s demand is merely that Germany meets them. The problem Germany has is that it is dependent on the US for security (assuming it is actually required) and hates it, but they don’t hate it enough to reach in their pockets and pay for it themselves. Like a spoiled teenager who hates the rules in their parent’s house, they don’t want to move out either because that would involve hardship.

What will be interesting is the response of Germany, France, and the UK to this:

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was in Moscow on Monday, as Russia tries to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in the wake of Washington’s pullout, pushing it into rare cooperation with Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was scheduled to discuss how to try to save the nuclear deal with Zarif, the Interfax news agency reported.

Zarif’s tour also took him to Beijing at the weekend and will see him visit Brussels later in the week, as the international backers of the 2015 accord scrabble to save it.

“The final aim of these negotiations is to seek assurances that the interests of the Iranian nation will be defended,” Zarif said at a news conference with Lavrov.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Russia and Europe had a duty to “jointly defend their legal interests” in terms of the deal.

A few months ago, Russia was accused – perhaps fairly – of conducting a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and there were expulsions of diplomats and lots of tough talk from European leaders about solidarity with Britain. Then a few weeks ago Russia’s client in Syria allegedly used poison gas against civilians and everyone went mental, with Britain and France joining the US in launching missile strikes against targets in Syria. Russia was a pariah nation run by a gangster regime, we were told, so it’s going to be very interesting whether the commercial interests of European businesses consign all this rhetoric to the dustbin. It’s going to be particularly interesting to see what Britain does, given Boris Johnson and Theresa May’s recent criticism of Russia. At least nobody is pretending it’s about nuclear security any more.

Something the media has failed to mention is the difficulty of doing business in Iran even without US sanctions in place. I can’t find the link now (Google search results are swamped by recent developments) but a few years ago one of the big Chinese companies effectively walked away from an Iranian oil and gas project having utterly failed to make any progress, citing the intransigence of the locals as the primary reason. Anyone who has read the history of Iran, particularly the bit concerning Britain’s dealings with Mohammad Mosaddegh over BP, will get a clear idea that doing business there is fraught with difficulties, not least because the Iranians are severely tough negotiators. There has been nothing preventing Chinese, Russian, or Turkish firms making hay in Iran in the absence of American and European countries for decades, but they haven’t, and for good reasons.

One of the main problems facing western companies concerns the ownership of Iranian companies. As is to be expected under such a regime, pretty much every major company is in some way owned by the government or powerful individuals connected to it. In many instances it is the The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which controls the company. From Wiki:

IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’sgovernment. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction. IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.

Last October Donald Trump sanctioned the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, independently of the nuclear deal. Leaving aside the difficulty of executing major projects in Iran without falling foul of US sanctions on the IRGC, can you imagine having an IRGC-owned company as a partner or contractor? Would they carry out the work as per the contract? To whom would you turn if they didn’t? It’s hard enough doing business in Russia with companies run by well-connected gangsters; now imagine what it’s like contracting with the private army of the Ayatollahs.

Major European nations risk creating an enormous political and security rift with the US over this Iranian nuclear deal, all for the benefit of a handful of companies who reckon they can make money in Iran. The way they’re talking, and the way it’s being reported, you’d think the money was already in the bank. It’s not, and probably never will be. Politicians should heed this point.

Share

The Twin Gambles of Saudi Arabia and Iran

Based on recent posts, some readers may get the impression that I am somewhat skeptical that Barack Obama deserves his Nobel Peace Prize, and I’d like to correct that. I think it was thoroughly deserved, for reasons implied in the following tweets:

Now to be fair this was a complete accident on Obama’s part, but by showing America’s enemies he was not to be feared while undermining its allies he somehow managed to get Saudi Arabia and Israel cooperating with one another on security and regional politics. Since then, Bahrain and the UAE have joined in. However you cut it, this is an impressive achievement even if it was wholly unintentional; for that alone he deserves his Nobel.

I suspect what’s happened is the civil war in Iraq that followed the disastrous toppling of Saddam Hussein, the rise of ISIS and the Syrian civil war, and the nastier elements of the Arab Spring (including the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood) have shaken a lot of sensible Arabs into accepting some uncomfortable truths. Chief among them is the fact that it’s not Israel that is their greatest threat but the opposite side of the Sunni-Shia divide. For any Sunni, that makes Iran-sponsored Shia their gravest enemy.

For years it was Saudi Arabia, via its sponsorship of Wahhabist madrassas throughout the Muslim and non-Muslim world which was the main driver of radical Islamic terrorism, and many people quite reasonably asked why the US didn’t bomb Riyadh in the aftermath of 9/11 instead of Baghdad. The simple and honest answer was that the production from the Saudi oilfields was so essential to the functioning of the entire world (not just the US) that under no circumstances could it be interrupted. The second answer was that, backward and autocratic the ruling family was, the alternative was likely to be very much worse. Authoritarian strongmen always use the excuse of keeping the headcases from taking over to justify spending decades in power, but in the case of the Saudi ruling family it was probably true. A lot of Saudis supported the Taliban, thinking their way of governing was how things should be, and considered the house of Al Saud too liberal. Osama bin Laden’s biggest gripe with the US was that it stationed troops on Saudi Arabia’s holy sands before and after the Gulf War. He fell out with the Saudi government when they turned down his generous offer of defending Saudi with an army of lunatic jihadists he’d recruited in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, preferring instead to use the American army.

It is said that for a long time the Saudi rulers would whisper to western diplomats pushing for reforms words to the effect of: “We want to, but we can’t right now or we’ll have a revolution. We need to move slowly, and only when ready.” These words might have been self-serving much of the time, but they were surely based on truth. Any attempt to really crack down on the financiers of radical elements in Saudi would have likely instigated a coup, although this doesn’t excuse the government spending billions exporting Wahhabism around the world. I’m tempted to believe there was some sincerity in their words because the new guy in charge, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is pushing through rapid and sweeping reforms aimed at weening the country off oil dependency, liberalising the society, and sidelining conservatives who preferred things as they were. Mohammed bin Salman has judged – rightly or wrongly, we’ll find out soon enough – that the majority population is ready to move away from tightly controlled, theocratic, Wahhabist rule and towards something resembling Kuwait or Abu Dhabi: hardly a liberal paradise, but a giant step in the right direction nonetheless.

This contrasts greatly with Iran which was in some ways the polar opposite. Rather than having a government that wants to reform but cannot because the people are hotheaded lunatics, the Iranians have a sensible population ruled by an ultra-conservative theocratic government which keeps a boot on their necks. If the Saudi government would have fled the country at any point over the past 15 years, the country would probably have fallen to extremists. Had the Mullahs done the same thing in Iran, it would likely have shifted very much towards liberalism. Despite both being sponsors of terrorism around the world for decades, it is this difference between the two countries now that is crucial, and explains why Saudi is being feted and Iran a pariah.

Mohammed bin Salman has gambled that the Saudi population is ready for reforms; the Ayatollahs are gambling they can keep ignoring Iranians’ demands for them. I suspect this will determine the shape of the Middle East over the next generation, rather than the outcomes on proxy battlefields in Yemen, Syria, or elsewhere. Obama backed one horse, Trump has backed another. History will show who was right.

Share

Story Changed

From the BBC:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

But the UK government says the only “plausible explanation” is that Russia is to blame.

Yes, this is what the government said from the beginning. They took a sample, sent it off to Porton Down – an indisputable centre of excellence for chemical warfare – who identified the substance as Novichok, which could only have come from Russia. Yup, this is what I remember quite clearly. Oh, hang on:

On Tuesday the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Ah.

The laboratory, which has previously identified the substance as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not their job to say where it was manufactured.

Right, this is beginning to piss me off. Now Porton Down’s position is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t mean anything in itself – their job was almost certainly to identify the substance not to speculate as to where this particular batch may have been manufactured. But this is not what the public was led to believe. Within a day or two of Porton Down getting involved their name was invoked by government ministers who heavily implied it was their experts who confirmed it almost certainly came from Russia. So where did they get this idea from?

The UK says further intelligence led to its belief that Russia was responsible.

Now this isn’t unreasonable in itself and the intelligence may be 100% accurate. But this is not what we were told. Why is this only coming out now, a month after the event and several weeks after Russia was issued with ultimatums and threats, plunging us neck-deep into a diplomatic row we’ve dragged around thirty other countries into?

To me, there is a big difference between:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family, and could only have come from Russia.

and:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

Whereas I don’t doubt the impartial expertise of the chaps at Porton Down, British intelligence hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. What form does this intelligence take? How much was it subject to interpretation? How much political pressure was brought to bear on the analysis? The British government has implied the source of manufacture has been determined by scientific analysis rather than intelligence sources. In other words, they have mislead the public.

Here’s what I reckon’s happened:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

As a member of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

Until now, everyone has been led to believe the Russian connection was made by Porton Down. The independent testing by the OPCW is likely to confirm the substance is Novichok, but will not be able to say where it was manufactured. At this point, the Russians will ask those at Porton Down “Then how did you know?” Anticipating this, Porton Down has distanced itself from making any Russian connection, forcing the government to come clean.

I have said right from the start that Theresa May’s government has handled this affair spectacularly badly. They’ve rushed to judgement for political reasons without getting their ducks in a row. Probably the best thing I can say at this point is that it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Share

Воскрешение

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.

Share

The Bravery of Lt-Col Arnaud Beltrame

While I was away in Morocco, a young Moroccan Islamist went on a murdering spree in the south of France, ending up in a supermarket where he took a woman hostage. A police officer on the scene, one Lt-Col Arnaud Beltrame, traded places with her in a move of monumental bravery that cost him his life:

French President Emmanuel Macron also paid tribute to the officer, saying that Col Arnaud “fell as a hero” after showing “exceptional courage and selflessness”, adding that he deserved “the respect and admiration of the whole nation”.

The whole world, even. Note that Beltrame was a Lt-Col, and would have been one of the senior officers on the scene. When the time came to show leadership, he stepped up.

Mr Collomb told reporters on Friday that police officers had managed to get some people out of the supermarket but the gunman had held one woman back as a human shield.

It was at this point, he said, that Col Beltrame had volunteered to swap himself for her.

As he did so, he left his mobile phone on a table with an open line so that police outside could monitor the situation.

When police heard gunshots, a tactical team stormed the supermarket. The gunman was killed and Col Beltrame was mortally wounded.

One may contrast the brave and selfless actions of Col Beltrame with those of the Deputy Sheriff who refused to confront the lunatic during the Parkland school shootings, even as children were being murdered, and with his superiors afterwards. We may also contrast the disregard for his own safety Col Beltrame displayed with that of the US police who dress for full combat and shoot unarmed people through “fear of their lives”. Cheese-eating surrender-monkeys, indeed.

That the French are cowards is a common slur on that nation*, one that is nonsense. French policemen have shown considerable bravery over the course of several attacks on civilians by Islamic lunatics, running towards the sound of shots even knowing they’re likely to be outgunned when they get there. Hopefully Col Beltrame’s sacrifice will put that stupid notion to bed forever. For my part, I’m rather glad I have French policemen around me, offering whatever protection they can.

*This mostly stems from their surrender to the Germans in 1940, and their reluctance to fight another war. Having been to Verdun, and knowing how much France suffered during WWI, their desire to avoid another war was understandable, particularly once their position on the battlefield had deteriorated so rapidly. Great Britain lost three-quarters of a million men during WWI, the French 1.1m. However, with much of the fighting taking place in France the civilian casualties were much higher and, coupled with disease, accounted for 4% of its population killed. Added to that were 4.2m wounded, compared with 1.6m British soldiers.

Share

Planes, Dogs, and Sheep

Last week it was reported that a dog belonging to a passenger on a United Airlines flight died after it was stuck in the overhead bin on the orders of a member of the flight crew. Apropos of this, Mark Steyn asks the following question:

Why didn’t anyone on that United flight stand up for the dog and take it down from the overhead bin?

I can answer that question. Since 9/11, any member of airport staff or airline crew can squeal that a passenger isn’t being sufficiently compliant and security goons will rush in mob-handed, beat them, arrest them, and hit them with terror charges which have a good chance of sticking. In other words, you are expected to obey every instruction issued by flight crew immediately and without complaining or they will seriously fuck up your day and possibly your entire life.

The airport staff – particularly security people – and flight crew know this only too well, and are happy to wield this disproportionate power they’ve been granted. No doubt in the beginning some held back from exercising their full authority unless absolutely necessary, but you’ll always get some people – and attract more of them to the job – who take a perverse delight in barking orders at those who would otherwise knock their teeth in. Next time you’re in a British airport, watch the behaviour of those wearing hi-viz vests and carrying a walkie-talkie and ask yourself if they haven’t let power go to their heads.

So that’s why nobody intervened when the flight crew ordered the dog to be stowed in the locker overhead. Had anybody taken it down, the crew would have initiated a sequence of actions commensurate with the plane being hijacked and the authorities on the ground would have gone along with it. Having recently seen some poor sod have the absolute shit kicked out of him and dragged off a United Airlines by uniformed thugs, nobody wants the same thing happening to them. And I expect few people have the confidence that the police chief waiting at the destination, or subsequent judges, will side with them against the air crew. Many people think the purpose of the TSA and the power given to airline crews is intended to get Americans used to being compliant in front of uniformed authority figures, and I would probably agree. If that was the purpose, it seems to have worked well. If that dog were to be saved by passengers, we would have first seen the two officers who dragged that man off the flight last year accosted on the plane and beaten senseless. That would never happen in today’s environment, and Rover paid the price.

Share

Putin’s Motivation

I’ve read a few places speculating as to what Putin’s motivation for trying to kill Skripal might be, and a common one is this (the whole thread is very good and worth a read, it’s just this bit I take issue with):

Ever since Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested, tried, and jailed everyone in Russia got the message loud and clear that Putin’s hold on power was not to be challenged. When I lived in Russia 2006-10, it was an established fact that you didn’t mess with the FSB, and Putin ruled supreme. Since then, we’ve seen the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the arrest and constant harassment of Alexei Navalny – both prominent critics of Putin and potential political challengers.

Putin is undoubtedly facing threats from within his circle and those just outside it, some of which he may not even know about. But anyone who fancies their chances will know beyond doubt that should they challenge his rule, they will be arrested and thrown in jail or killed. The idea that Putin had Skripal killed in order to send a message to Russians that opposing him is high risk is nonsensical: that message has been well understood by any Russian with a pulse since at least 2008, and it didn’t need reinforcing, and certainly not in a way which causes a diplomatic rift with Britain. If Putin did order this hit, it wasn’t for this reason.

Share

Ultimatums, Evidence, and Threats

Theresa May, who believes every problem can be solved by bullying and threatening the law-abiding citizens of her own country, is finding the approach doesn’t work against nuclear-armed shitlords:

Theresa May is expected to announce a series of measures against Russia after it failed to meet her deadline to explain how a nerve agent was used to poison a former double agent in the UK.

Oh. What does the Head Girl do now? Tell teacher?

Moscow said it would not respond to the UK’s ultimatum until it was given access to the chemical substance used in the attack.

A reasonable request, I think. If the police haul you in and say they’ve found a kitchen knife belonging to you in the chest of a dead man, you are entitled to ask to see the knife rather than simply accept their statement that it’s yours. So if the British government is saying Skripal was attacked using a nerve agent that can only have come from a Russian government source, and is demanding answers, I think it’s reasonable the Russians are given a sample. Sure, the Russians may deny it’s theirs but then you are also free to deny the knife in the dead man’s chest is yours also. Being presented with the evidence is an important part of any system of justice.

Even supposing the Russians aren’t playing games, they have an interest in obtaining a sample. If the Russians have “lost control” of a nerve agent as May herself suggested, they might need a sample to see what lab it came from, or where it was stored. We know that the nerve agent Novichok was developed in the Soviet Union, and the US did everything it could to secure stockpiles of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons when the regime collapsed, but it’s certain some stuff fell into the wrong hands. A load of this Novochik was produced in Uzbekistan, not the most secure country in the world. The assertion that this simply must be a Russian government operation because Novichok was used isn’t very strong, in my opinion. There’s also the question of how secret the formula was. Yes, this agent was developed in the Soviet Union but could it have been copied and produced elsewhere? One way to answer these questions is to show the Russians the substance and ask them. Maybe they’ll lie, or maybe they won’t. But why is Britain reluctant to share a sample with them? What are they afraid of? Nobody is asking these questions, and the government and media seem happy to just gloss over the request as if it’s completely unreasonable.

Given some are talking about invoking NATO’s Article 5, I’m not too sure I want to trust the mere word of a spectacularly dim prime minister heading an incompetent, shambolic government presiding over government departments with a habit of lying. Anyone remember Saddam’s WMDs? I’d like to see a third party – perhaps a neutral government like Norway or Switzerland – take a look at the nerve agent and list every possible source, with as much help from the Russians as they can get. It would do no harm to let the Americans have a look at it, too. Basically, I’m deeply unhappy about the British keeping it to themselves and issuing ultimatums. If they have evidence, it must be displayed for all to see.

So, what will May do? The BBC has some suggestions:

Expel senior diplomats, perhaps even the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, and known Russian intelligence agents

Okay, and we’ll see some of ours kicked out of Moscow. Standard stuff.

Take some sort of action to bar wealthy Russian oligarchs from accessing their mansions and other luxuries in London, as suggested by Tory MP and House of Commons foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat. One way this could happen is through the use of Unexplained Wealth Orders, which allow government officials to seize assets including property until they have been properly accounted for

Y’know, there are some of us who were wondering why this was allowed in the first place. I remember when Roman Abramovich first showed up in London and bought Chelsea Football Club. Rather than engage in a sober analysis of where he got the money, the media got all excited about which players he would buy, and nobody in government raised an eyebrow. In fact, the one voice that has consistently asked the British government to not allow dodgy Russians to turn up in London with bags of stolen money and live the high life has been the Russian government.

A boycott of the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year by officials and dignitaries – a symbolic move that UK allies are unlikely to emulate

Only officials and dignitaries? Would anyone in England even notice?

Pass a British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky act, which punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with asset freezes and travel bans.

Okay, fair enough. But I suspect once British businessmen start being tossed in Russian prisons for various “violations” this won’t seem like such a good idea.

Taking Russian broadcasters such as RT (formerly Russia Today) off the air – broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after Mrs May speaks on Wednesday.

So we’re going to use what is supposed to be an independent broadcasting regulator as a political weapon. Yes, this is right up Theresa May’s street. And the Russians have their response ready should this happen:

Not a single British media outlet will be working in Russia if London decides to shut down RT broadcasting in the UK, Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said.

This will of course include the BBC, which peddles almost as much ignorant, ill-informed, ruling-class propaganda as RT. It will also include the Moscow bureau of The Times, which is fitting given how often its columnists demand RT is shut down.

But this is my favourite:

A string of deaths on UK soil are to be reinvestigated by the police and MI5 after claims of Russian involvement, Home Secretary Amber Rudd says.

Presumably because they didn’t do a proper job the first time around. What other reason could there be?

The deaths that Buzzfeed identified include those of Boris Berezovsky, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin

Mr Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom in 2013. Police said a post-mortem showed no sign of a violent struggle.

I have a pal who is involved in the security of Russian oligarchs in London. He thinks the idea that Berezovsky hanged himself is laughable. It is worth noting that Berezovsky had many enemies, not just Putin. He fought a high-profile court battle with Roman Abramovich  between 2011-12 over who owned the assets they’d both looted in the 1990s, which he lost. Ironically, the Russians frequently complained that by granting Berezovsky political asylum, the British government was sheltering a gangster who ought to be facing criminal charges back home. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, the most consistent critic of dodgy Russians being allowed to set up shop in London with no questions asked is the Russian government.

And what is the threat to re-open the Berezovsky case, exactly? The coroner returned an open verdict, saying:

“I am not saying Mr Berezovsky took his own life, I am not saying Mr Berezovsky was unlawfully killed. What I am saying is that the burden of proof sets such a high standard it is impossible for me to say.”

What Amber Rudd seems to be suggesting is that, if the case is re-opened, the finger will point at Putin. Sorry, but is there something we’re not being told? I was under the impression an inquest into someone’s death in Britain was carried out professionally, thoroughly, and competently and the verdict sincere, but it appears they can be revisited and a different result obtained if it suits the political whim of the current Home Secretary. Now I’d not be the slightest bit surprised if Plod has covered up the murder of Boris Berezovsky for one reason or another, but it would be a spectacular own goal to admit this in the course of accusing Russia of malfeasance.

May’s government really isn’t handling this well at all, and is making Britain look almost as dodgy as Russia.

Share