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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Testing Times

Okay, so I’ve spent the morning trying to think of a reason why Putin would order this hit on Skirpal in a way that implicates Russia. Let’s look at something Jean said in the comments:

Quite simple people – as much as Putin would like to see NATO gone, he is far more interested in breaking up the EU. After the last expansion of both organizations, in 2004, he was asked whether he would cooperate with both and he replied that he couldn’t imagine not working with them. He changed his tune in 2005 after the EU commission starting talking about bringing an anti-trust case against Gazprom.

Perhaps unfairly I initially dismissed this, but let’s suppose he’s she’s right. From an outsider’s perspective, Britain and the EU are at each other’s throats, trading insults and seemingly as divided as ever as the Brexit negotiations lurch on in fits and starts. It may suit Putin to test the EU’s commitment to Britain and measure their hostility to Russia. Would the EU rush to Britain’s aid in the wake of a hostile Russian act, or will they mince their words and do nothing? The former would require principles and the belief that Russia is indeed a threat to Germany or France (the rest of the EU doesn’t count). The latter would be driven by EU hatred of Britain over Brexit and Germany’s considerable commercial interests in Russia. It’s not difficult to see how this will play out. I’d not be too surprised if Macron denounced Russia, whatever else you may think of the young French president, he doesn’t just say what everyone else wants him to. But this is weak sauce:

Mrs May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and “discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it”, her spokesman said.

What allies? Germany? Heh.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and officials were in touch with the UK.

Downing Street said the incident was not an “article five” matter – a reference to Nato rules which say an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all.

No? Why not? I don’t think going to war with Russia is a good idea at all, but if this is a direct attack on the British people by the Russian government, as we are being told, then why does this not trigger Article 5? I know the answer: Article 5 is to be triggered only when it suits the geopolitical interests of the US. Which is fair enough, they’re the ones who will do the bulk of the nuking and the fighting.

So what will the Americans do? This is what the BBC reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US agreed with the UK that Russia was likely to be behind the attack.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences,” he added.

“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

Naturally, many people who think any hesitation on Trump’s part to launch an all-out nuclear strike on Moscow is proof that he’s Putin’s puppet, but we can ignore these idiots even though they’re many in number. But I don’t see why America is under any obligation to get involved here. Britain isn’t a particularly great ally of the United States right now: the public have generated considerable noise in letting Donald Trump know he won’t be welcome should he visit the United Kingdom, and he should expect mass protests of a size not seen since the Iraq War demonstrations. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has publicly stated that he would oppose the current US president from addressing parliament, and both Theresa May and Amber Rudd saw fit to chastise Trump for daring to retweet a video which made Muslims look bad. Sadiq Khan seems to think the office of London’s mayor has a foreign policy element, and that should be directed at criticising Trump. Then yesterday a credible story circulated that an American citizen had been denied entry into the United Kingdom because her Austrian boyfriend says mean things about Muslims.

At this point, Donald Trump would be forgiven for thinking Britain should deal with its own problems for a change. The Russians have attacked you? Oh dear. Perhaps you ought to have focused on Russian agents running around your cities with nerve agents instead of endlessly insulting me and telling me what I can and cannot share on Twitter. If I’m honest, I hope he says just that (see bobby b’s comment here, too).

So this issue is going to severely test the relationship Britain has with the US, as well as what remains of their relationship with the EU. Even if Putin was not behind this attack, he will be paying serious attention to what each leader says, and what actions they’re prepared to support. It seems an overly complicated and risky way to go about it, but perhaps this was his plan all along? We’ve got to consider it. Let’s see what the Russians say today in response to May’s demand for an explanation. I may have to acknowledge Jean called this right from the start.

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So it was Russia, in some form. What now?

At the time of writing, this is breaking news:

Former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia, Theresa May has told MPs.

The PM said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack.

The Foreign Office summoned Russia’s ambassador to provide an explanation.

Mrs May said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.

The chemical used in the attack, the PM said, has been identified as one of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

Mrs May said: “Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

I’d say she’s got the two options narrowed down correctly. She’s also well within her rights to summon the Russian ambassador and demand an explanation. It’s going to be interesting what the Russians say: this isn’t something they can just fob off in their usual manner.

My guess is the latter of the two scenarios is the more likely. I simply can’t think of a credible theory that would have the Russian government trying to knock off this Skirpal chap at all, let alone using a nerve agent which points the finger straight at them, and then botching the job. So I think there are rogue elements in Russia, quite possibly hostile to Putin and much more hardline than he, who have access to this agent and firstly bear a grudge against Skirpal for his treachery, but who also want to ensure there is no improvement in relations between Russia and the west. The Russian economy is not in good shape; perhaps Putin – or one of his advisers – has been murmuring about concessions over Crimea in return for an easing of sanctions, or backing down in some other manner. Okay, the Crimea one is unlikely: your average Russian is pretty committed to keeping hold of Crimea, far more than they care about Syria for example. But something along these lines is at least a believable scenario, albeit a rather frightening one.

However, if the Russians have rogue elements of their security forces running amok, don’t expect Putin to admit it. For someone in Putin’s position to publicly concede he’s lost control in some manner would be suicide. Here’s a sobering thought though, probably not one entertained by those demanding Britain (and America) takes action against Putin: supposing he’s replaced by someone worse, someone who didn’t think much about knocking off former spies with nerve agents in a Salisbury pub? That’s not to say we shouldn’t take action, but we need to think through the consequences. In this regard, I think we can safely ignore anything most of the media has to say over the coming days, as well as Corbyn and his idiotic shadow cabinet.

A lot of people are already demanding Trump says something in support of Britain over this issue, but I’m interested to hear what the EU and European leaders say. Which way will Germany jump, especially if further sanctions are mooted? I’m half-expecting Merkel to mumble a bit before doing whatever is good for Siemens at al, with the rest of the EU falling in behind her. Probably the only ones who will object are the Baltic States, but it’s high time they learned when it comes to the EU and Russia, they’re on their own – just like Britain.

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If Putin did it, we need a convincing explanation as to why

Something about this Russian spy and his daughter doesn’t add up for me. Since I wrote my previous posts, it has transpired that the two were attacked with a nerve agent. This makes things doubly serious, firstly because nerve agents are so deadly that collateral damage is hard to avoid – and with 21 people now said to be affected, there has been plenty of that – and secondly because nerve agents, compared with poisons, are generally only accessible to state bodies. This puts the attack on Skirpal in the same bracket as the one which killed Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium-210. Nerve agents and polonium are not things you can buy in a shop or make at home – at least, we hope not.

So all the fingers are pointing towards a Russian government operation. But if that’s the case, the rules of the game have changed:

It seems to reflect a breakdown in the old etiquette of espionage, not only foreshadowing an even more vicious “shadow war” to come, but also challenging Western states to come up with new ways to respond to and deter these kinds of outrages.

In itself, former spies are not usually considered targets, according to the old rules. It’s assumed that they will be debriefed, squeezed of all remaining information of value they may possess, but typically they then semi-retire into grateful obscurity, their knowledge increasingly dated.

So either the Russians have blatantly broken the rules – which served them equally well as us, and were maintained throughout the Cold War – or it was not a Russian government operation. Or put another way, if something doesn’t follow the normal rules of a government operation then it probably wasn’t a government operation.

So let’s suppose it was carried out on Putin’s orders. Why would he do this? The easy answer is “to send a message”. Okay, to whom? For what purpose? To discourage spies within his ranks? Sure, but Putin grew up in the KGB during the Cold War and they’d have been equally motivated then, but they stuck to the rules. What has changed that would make someone versed in old-school spycraft deviate so drastically from the rules? Did this Skirpal still have valuable information to disclose? If that’s the case, why was he wandering around Salisbury eating in restaurants and loafing around with his daughter on park benches?

Perhaps it was for personal revenge. If so, why Skirpal? Of all the people on Putin’s shit-list, was he really that high up? And worth risking a massive diplomatic rift with Britain over? People need to stop looking at Putin as some sort of pantomime villain. He’s a smart man and although his methods of running a country are dubious at best and his morals non-existent, he is not some irrational lunatic who lashes out for reasons of personal revenge without thinking through the consequences. If Skirpal was killed on Putin’s orders, it would not have been to satisfy his ego. We need a better explanation than that.

Some are saying he is sending a warning to Britain. I don’t know why: other than having a vote on the UN security council and (for now) having a say in any sanctions passed by the EU, Britain isn’t much of a threat to Russia. For Putin, it is better to have Britain on-side, or luke-warm, or perhaps even cool rather than dead-set against them. Nothing Putin has said or done suggests he has some huge chip on his shoulder about the UK, in the way he does the United States. Britain and Russia clash over certain policies for sure, e.g. Syria, but I can’t see how murdering Skirpal in such a manner would help with that. Again, we need to stop thinking of Putin as a cartoon villain, coming up with elaborate plans to warn or punish his enemies.

So even though this looks like a Russian government operation, I believe we need to come up with a plausible theory as to why they’d have carried it out as they did, risking an extremely serious rift with the UK. How would it benefit Russia? So far, most commentary has been of similar quality to that which supposes Putin swung the US election for Trump, i.e. implausible and often demonstrable nonsense. And as I said in my previous post, that’s half the problem: having been sold the idea that Putin is a Bond villain working endless nefarious schemes, we’re now incapable of thinking rationally on any subject remotely related to Russia. Here’s what the Russians themselves say:

Russia was not involved in the attempted murder of an ex-spy and is willing to help with a UK inquiry, the country’s foreign minister has said.

Are the Russians playing an exceedingly clever game here, helping out in the inquiry knowing full well they did it? This is a bit risky, isn’t it? When Russian agents allegedly went about assassinating people in Turkey, they didn’t rush to help Ankara with any investigation. They either denied it or said nothing. When they assassinated a Chechen in Qatar and their guys got caught, they defended them to the hilt. When the Israelis assassinated someone in a Dubai hotel room, they denied everything and went quiet. The only times I’ve heard of a criminal assisting the police in their investigation has been in fictional stories or on those TV shows which show the guy in prison having been remarkably stupid in not making himself scarce. My guess is that if the Russian government did order this hit, they’d have in place a very well thought out plan of how to handle the resulting diplomatic crisis, and it would not have involved cooperating with the investigation.

A lot of this doesn’t make sense to me, and only fits the “Putin did it” narrative if we assume he’s the evil genius desperate politicians and the idiotic media say he is. I don’t mind the Russian government being the primary suspect, but I’d like to see a proper theory advanced that stands up to scrutiny, and all other possibilities explored and ruled out, before we decide to close the Russian embassy in London and send them all packing.

What I’m saying is I am not very happy with politicians, the media, and a lot of the public simply saying “Putin did it, obvs” and demanding retaliatory actions without having anything to support the allegation other than the absolute mountain of shite that’s been written about the man in the past 18 months.

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Who did their job, and who didn’t?

Via MC in the comments, this:

The security consultant who has worked for the company that compiled the controversial dossier on Donald Trump was close to the Russian double agent poisoned last weekend, it has been claimed.

Give it a few days and we’ll start finding out this guy was tied in with Clintons, and the story will disappear in a puff of smoke with only conspiracy theorists mentioning his name ever again. With good reason: associates of the Clintons winding up dead is hardly newsworthy, is it? Might as well run a report every time it rains in Wales.

Slightly more seriously, I’m going to buck the trend again. On the one hand I’m in agreement with some of my commenters: Britain should not allow Russian agents (assuming it was them) to go around murdering people willy-nilly with polonium and nerve gas on its soil. For starters, the possibility of collateral damage is great; the policeman who first handled the couple is critically ill in hospital, and this is appalling.

But a spy being killed by the Russians? Okay, the chap worked for us so he’s on our side. But the Russians don’t see it that way, and understandably so. To them, he’s a filthy traitor. Did the information he passed on to the British result in any Russians being killed or imprisoned? It’s hard to imagine his treachery was harmless. So let’s flip this around. Would we be outraged if MI6 had arranged for Kim Philby or Guy Burgess to be knocked off in Moscow once they’d betrayed the west and fled to the Soviet Union? On the contrary, I’d consider it a duty of the British government to try.

The outrage here isn’t really that Russia tried to kill a former spy. The outrage is that the British government let a former double agent wander around Salisbury oblivious to the fact someone still wanted him dead. I don’t think they even gave him a new identity, let alone a security detail. Who was in charge of this? Or is there a gentleman’s agreement that Russia has breached whereby spies who’ve been handed back in a swap are off-limits for retribution? Britain has a duty to protect those who cross over to work for them, as well as the public at large. This duty goes beyond expecting the Russians not to play dirty, and they’ve been negligent. How did someone even get a nerve agent into the country? Isn’t that a scenario they should be guarding against? Perhaps the security services should spend less time hounding British citizens for saying hurtful things on the internet and start doing the job they’re supposed to. We can be sure the Russians are doing theirs.

UPDATE

From the Moscow Times (H/T Tim Johnson):

Skripal was not just any spy, though, but a former insider, a GRU officer who allegedly blew the cover of some 300 Russian agents.

There’s 300 suspects right there. It is quite possible this had nothing to do with the Russian government at all. Let’s just say that had Bowe Bergdahl been Russian instead of American, he’d likely be found dead and the government with a clean pair of hands.

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