Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Skripal attack in England (Expanded 03/27/2018)

Craig Murray calls attention on his blog to a development in the Skripal attempted murder case that is the most prominent issue in the latest round of European, US, and NATO diplomatic actions against Russia, Boris Johnson A Categorical Liar 03/22/2018. His post is about the fact that the British High Court had authorized a new blood sample to be taken from Sergei and Yulia Skripal to be sent to the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), "the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997."

The High Court decision of March 22 by Mr. Justice Williams has a couple of passages that Muray flags. One is, "The application came before me on 20 March 2018. It was made on an urgent basis. The OPCW wished to collect samples in the near future. The evidence is that samples taken from living individuals are of more scientific value than post mortem samples." Murray takes this as another indication of the gravity of the Skripals' conditions.

Murray also calls attention to the way the High Court describes the findings of Porton Down, a science complex, but in this case used to refer specifically to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). (Gordon Corera, Russian spy: Inside UK lab that identified nerve agent BBC News 03/23/2018) The decision states:
On 4 March 2018 Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were admitted to hospital in Salisbury. Tests carried out by Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down concluded that they had been exposed to a nerve agent. Both Mr and Ms Skripal remain in hospital under heavy sedation. The precise effect of their exposure on their long term health remains unclear albeit medical tests indicate that their mental capacity might be compromised to an unknown and so far unascertained degree. ... [p. 3]

Blood samples from Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were analysed and the findings indicated exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent. [p. 10; my emphasis]
Murray takes the "or closely related agent" phrase means that Porton Down was not definitely saying the nerve agent was Novichok, which much of the reporting on it has treated as a given. And, he says, "a 'closely related agent' could be manufactured by literally scores of state and non-state actors."

Marcy Wheeler writes about the Skripal case in Does NSC Consider the Spripal Assassination Attempt To Be Election Related? Emptywheel 03/26/2018:
While most observers do not question that Russia was behind the attack, and while Russia certainly seems to be flouting their role in it, I’ve seen no substantiated explanation for why Russia would carry out the attempt in the way they did. It’s not just that Russia conducted another apparent assassination operation in the UK even as recent press attention has focused on a series of similar attacks. But they did so using a nerve agent, justifying the kind of elevated response we’re seeing from Europe and being contemplated in the US.
Her post looks at the possibility that Skripal may have been connected in some way to Christopher Steele's investigation of Trump's Russia ties.

Marcy is reading tea leaves, tugging at some interesting threads in the story, not offering some definitive theory on the motivation behind the attack.

Kim Sengupta reports on the current diplomatic escalation, If Moscow did order the attempted assassination of Skripal, it is proving very costly for Vladimir Putin Independent 03/27/2018. The German and French diplomatic rhetoric strikes me as more cautious than that of Britain, Australia, and, yes, the Trump Administraion:
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, asked for more “clarification” from London and suggested that what happened was essentially a “bilateral issue” between Russia and Britain.

It remains to be seen what other punitive steps the West is willing to take. The European Council President, Donald Tusk, held that “additional measures including further expulsion are not excluded in coming days, weeks.”

One obvious and effective step would be for Mr Macron to cancel his planned visit to Russia due to take place in two months’ time. That would certainly be a statement of disapproval to President Putin.

Germany, meanwhile, can pull out of its involvement with Russia in a pipeline project which will take Russian gas to Germany. Berlin maintains that the €10bn (£8.75bn) Nord Stream 2, will buttress Europe’s energy security by ensuring steady gas supplies at a time when the continent’s energy resources are dwindling.
Although Germany is also expelling Russian diplomats, four in this round. (Mike Szymanski und Daniel Brössler, USA und Deutschland weisen russische Diplomaten aus Süuddeutsche Zeitung 26.03.2018) Germany are acting in concert with their NATO allies, but employing a distinct diplomatic framing.

Germany has its own recent grievance with Russia over a recent cyber-attack for which it holds Russia responsible. (Georg Mascolo et al, Die Geschichte eines Cyber-Angriffs Süuddeutsche Zeitung 22.03.2018)

Once again, examples of why it's so important in a democracy for the public to have actual confidence in official intelligence agencies.

Austria's Chancellor "Babyface" Kurz has maintained a more explicitly neutral policy in the EU-Russia dispute. This is at least superficially in line with Austria's traditional neutrality since the Second World War. But Kurz' junior coalition partner, the FPÖ headed by H.C. Strache, has a formal cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party. (Austrian far right signs deal with Putin's party, touts Trump ties Reuters 12/19/2016)

Given the sometimes genuinely hysterical tone in the US press over everything Russia, it's worth noting that there is nothing inherently sinister about a formal political relationship between parties in different countries. Center-left parties participate in the Socialist International and the Progressive Alliance. But knowing about Putin, United Russia, and the FPÖ, I find their formal association more than a bit dubious. As Reuters reported in 2016:
The FPO has long taken a pro-Russia stance, calling for an end to European Union sanctions against Moscow imposed over the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It has also denied allegations that it receives funding from Moscow.

On a recent visit to the United States, FPO officials met people close to President-elect Donald Trump, including his pick for national security adviser Michael Flynn, the FPO said in a statement announcing the Russian deal.

“The FPO is further gaining influence internationally,” its statement said, without specifying the agreement’s content. A spokesman for the FPO - which this year achieved a record election score but failed to secure the Austrian presidency - said he did not know the deal’s details.

“It is particularly important to Strache that the U.S. and Russia stand shoulder to shoulder,” the statement added, saying that could improve the situations in Syria and Crimea and lead to a lifting of sanctions on Russia.
The following is an update of 03/27/2018 adding to the original post.

thuis is a March 8 program from Aljazeera on the Skripal case from March 8 that covers some of the issues. There is an interesting exchange Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital Management who was declaring Russia definitely guilty and Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer who was more cautious about jumping beyond the information available in the public record. He tries to verbally bully her into shutting up and she manages to calmly insert the fact that Browder has some particular personal axes to grind. Who poisoned ex-Russian agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter? Inside Story 03/08/2018:

The discussion over Russia issues is often high-adrenaline and sometimes frivolous. (Why, yes, I was thinking of Rachel Maddow, why do you ask?) But nothing that I'm referencing her or have seen elsewhere has made me think that Russia should be excluded as the author of the Skripal attack. And I'm assuming that the Putin government was responsible. But I'm also aware that we the general public have incomplete information right now. And that the question of motive is still an open one, even assuming that Russia was behind the murder attempt.

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