The poisoning of an alleged Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, UK, has become a red herring for global consumption. Everyone is commenting on it, making jokes and apportioning blame. But what steps are being taken to protect other members of the UK population, or anyone else, from experiencing a similar fate?
No one wants to be struck down with a Novichok nerve agent. Obviously therefore the UK has to take action to prevent any more people from being exposed to it. One obvious first step would be to find out where it came from, and prevent it spreading any further from that place.
According to the UK government, the nerve agent could only have been manufactured in Russia. If Russia is the source, Russia has to stop making it or sending it elsewhere. If some Russians both imported and administered this nerve agent for criminal purposes, as the UK alleges, the UK needs to identify who those Russians were and how they did it.
Expulsions and Recriminations
But what has the UK actually done? For starters it has expelled 23 diplomats it claims are part of a ring of intelligence agents, other countries are following suit in a tit-for-tat row of expulsions and recriminations; not based on hard proof, only allegations. It seems to be a very convenient coincidence that as soon as the poisoning takes place this spy ring is uncovered. If these people are intelligence agents and not diplomats, when did this become known, and how? Did something happen in the Salisbury incident which blew their cover, and if so, why was this not reported to the public in the justifications of the UK government’s subsequent actions?
If these people really were intelligence agents, the UK authorities would have known all about their activities long before Salisbury. If their being intelligence agents had been a problem, they would have been expelled long before, without all the publicity. If it wasn’t a problem before, but now is, this could only be because one or more of them is directly connected with the Salisbury incident. Which ones? Why are they not being named, when there has been a long history of naming and shaming diplomats who commit criminal acts?
These questions are not merely the province of sceptics. They are fundamentals of UK law, and it is the UK which is claiming Russia committed a criminal act according to that law. This is why Russia asked to see case files before commenting on the matter: the Russian government was simply following UK law, and pointing out that the UK government is not.
If any legal case is brought against an individual in the UK, that individual has the right to see the evidence against them in advance of the trial. It is not good enough to say, as the UK government has, that because they are convinced the Russian government did this some persons it refuses to identify must be responsible, simply because they represent Russia, which has the means to carry out such an attack. Evidence must be provided to the accused of what they did and why, and on whose orders, and despite the enormous help it would give the UK’s case to state these things it is refusing to do so.
Recriminations and Finger Pointing
So the expulsion of the so-called intelligence agents is a symbolic gesture, all part of a larger pattern of recriminations. Russians did this or this, so we don’t want them here. But if the Russian government did not do, this no one is being protected from future attacks by expelling these diplomats. If it did, it can easily do the same again through other hands, diplomatic ones or not, and all countries have a long history such things.
Such actions have nothing to protect the UK population, and nor are designed to. The UK government is trying to protect itself by blaming others. The actions following this incident all fit a well-worn pattern. The UK is behaving as if it itself has more to be ashamed of than anything Russia may have done. Such actions would not be necessary if it knew Russia had committed this crime.
Our trusted servants
We can start with the actions taken in the aftermath of the incident. Immediate measures were taken to seal off parts of Salisbury to prevent the nerve agent affecting more people.
Novichok nerve agents can do this, but this is why they are often unsuitable for targeted assassinations. If you are after one specific person, you make sure you get that person and not a number of people in a big net, to show the victim’s supporters that they can be sweep up in the same way.
Obviously therefore chemical weapons experts and other medical personnel would ensure public safety in such cases. Instead, it was the police and the army, who have been following the nerve agent’s traces ever since. Both these services are trained in crowd control, and have chemical weapons experts amongst them. But why do you need hordes of police and army to stop people walking down a street with a deadly nerve agent in it, when its presence has been widely reported all round the world?
The army is rarely seen in civilian life in the UK. There are a few armed soldiers guarding royal palaces and important government buildings, but unless they live near a barracks or recruiting office, or in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, that’s all UK residents usually see of soldiers.
But like expelled diplomats soldiers serve a symbolic function, and are deployed to send a message to the public. They show that the state is in charge during a crisis. For example, if the public service unions call a strike soldiers are brought in to drive ambulances and collect rubbish. This shows that the government is still in charge, as the troops answer directly to the government, not a trade union.
During the Libyan crisis in 2011 a number of UK citizens were airlifted out by the British Army. However they were not sent home: they were trained to serve as soldiers themselves, so that the UK could continue to pursue its political objectives without soldiers being killed. If a government can do that, with the full co-operation of the army, it can also send civilians, perhaps unemployed ones, to collect rubbish and drive ambulances, as other civilians already do these jobs. But these civilians would not project the right image of state control, so people are left to die or crawl through piles of garbage to their front doors if need be.
A chemical attack on an alleged spy by an individual Russian would be a civilian crime. An attack by agents of the Russian state on any UK resident is a state matter, which the UK state needs to be seen to be responding to. The claim that the Russian state carried out this attack is based on the use of Novichok, not the identity of any attacker the UK government is prepared to name. But how certain is the UK that the Russian state really was responsible?
Former Ambassador Craig Murray, who has developed quite a reputation for having inside knowledge of how the UK government and Foreign Service work, insists that the Porton Down lab which identified the nerve agent as Russian actually did no such thing. He says that the scientists there are unable to confirm that it was manufactured in Russia. Only after a tense meeting with government officials did they agree the compromise form of words “of a type developed by Russia“, which means the same as describing a printed book as “of a type developed in Germany” or an aeroplane as “of a type developed in the USA”.
As the method of producing Novichok has been published, and is available in English, the chemical used in the attack could also have come from a non-Russian source. However the UK government has chosen to take a particular line in this case without providing the evidence it is obliged to do under its own laws. So who are the police and army actually protecting?
Any possible assassination targets, and the general public, remain at the same risk if you do not identify who administered the nerve agent and how they managed to do it. If the UK government had been able to do these things it would have done so publicly, in a great show of its all-seeing omnipotence and determination to protect its citizens and the whole civilised world. But it can’t, so is protecting itself by creating an environment in which it cannot be questioned. If there are soldiers on the streets there must be an emergency, so you can’t interfere by asking why, and who says so.
Your words are someone else’s life
Expelling diplomats who you have suddenly discovered to be spies is only one of many actions a country can take against another it believes to have acted wrongly. This is the same UK which was happy to bomb Iraq because it allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction, which did not exist, rather than producing and using deadly nerve agents, which do exist.
It is also involved in the never-ending War on Terrorism, whilst sealing files on its own terrorist incidents for 75 years so that no one will ever know, or be able to stop, who was behind them. It also supports the US narrative about ISIS being an unstoppable force, which there is no point trying to defeat, despite the fact it has been practically driven out of Iraq and Syria by the locals, without US assistance, and is led by people such as Tatarkhan Baratashvili, who were declared unfit for combat in their home countries.
If the UK really wanted to take action against Russia over its development and alleged offensive use of Novichok it would do more than send diplomats home. For example, it would insist on UN inspections of the facilities which produce it, or demand that Russia be expelled from UN scientific cooperation programmes. Even if it had no intention of taking direct action, it could persuade its many friends restrict Russia’s activities, and access to scientific expertise, and lift these sanctions only if the Russian state could prove it had no connection with the Salisbury attack.
Instead, the present UK government is doing what Cameron did in Libya – making others suffer instead of practising what it preaches. It has persuaded tiny Iceland, which has no need for lectures from the British having beaten them in the Cod Wars of the 1970s, to “diplomatically boycott” the forthcoming World Cup in Russia. Officially Iceland has done this itself, on its own initiative. But the form of words it used in the announcement, about “our partners”, means the same as the Soviet Estonian Paul Keres’ statement that he never became World Chess Champion because he was “unlucky, like my country”.
This is another in the long line of sports-related boycotts in which athletes are deprived of opportunities they have worked for their whole lives for political reasons. As Sir Denis Follows, then head of the British Olympic Association, pointed out in 1980 when asked to join the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics, those same governments have signed the charters of these various sports, and other contracts, which oblige them to take part. But when they have political disputes, of no relevance to the athletes, they take their teams out and the hopes and dreams of people desperate to represent their countries are ruined.
Largely as a result of Sir Denis telling the UK government that he wasn’t going to withdraw the athletes Western countries stopped using sportsmen to fight their political battles for them. But they
still use sporting events themselves in the same way. No one will actually care if Icelandic officials don’t turn up to the World Cup, as part of their programme of suspending high-level contacts. But this is easier than justifying the claims its partners are making against Russia, though no harder than stopping the manufacture and use of Novichok by national governments, if Russia keeps its promise to co-operate in full with the investigation into the Salisbury incident.
The bogeyman will get you
Theresa May realised months ago that she could easily go down in history as the worst Prime Minister the UK has ever had. She is caught between a rock and a hard place over Brexit, knowing the damage it is causing but either splitting the party or unleashing the fury of the mainstream media’s propaganda machine, and a large section of the UK public, if she pulls out of it. Every time she opens her mouth she alienates more people, who never realised that inside this successful woman was a nobody trying to get out, who is in the job precisely because she is so bad she is easy to blame for all the things she has been lumbered with by the actions of others.
Theresa’s only way out is to make a new set of international relationships work. She insists the UK will remain close to the EU, even though it won’t be in it. She has also stated that she is prepared to abandon all kinds of EU regulations to try and revive the old “special relationship” with the US, which has little need of that relationship. So desperate has she become to square this circle that she has caved in to both the US and EU at every turn to try and make it work.
Even Donald Trump is having problems too. Many think, or at least hope, that he will very likely be impeached following the Mueller probe. He has to distance himself from the Russians to avoid disgrace, hefty financial losses and probably a significant prison term. He can’t do that himself however because he knows no one would take such an action seriously, coming from him. So Theresa, who has given the US the keys to Gibraltar to secure US war goals, is now making the Russians out to be criminals, and therefore, by extension, on the other side, not working with Trump in a conspiracy against America.
If the odd Russian spy dies in the process, should Theresa care? If there is collateral damage to the policeman who responded to the call, or the surrounding area, does that matter, when set against her political problems?
Churchill signed the Yalta Agreement knowing what would happen to millions of East European anti-Communists he was sending home to their deaths. If a few more deaths, and the constant threat of more, can get Theresa out of a hole she will see that as a price worth paying, as the thousands who now live out of food banks in this G8 country recognise only too well.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.