The Trump administration confidently asserts that the Kremlin poisoned Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on a public bench in Salisbury, England, at the beginning of March. The actual evidence appears inconclusive, though; as of Tuesday, investigating scientists at the Porton Down research laboratory had not uncovered any proof of Russian involvement.
Are our leaders making up "facts" again?
Particularly strange is how much they emphasize that "Novichok," the poison reportedly used at Salisbury, first emerged in the Soviet Union. True enough, the Russians invented it during the Cold War – but the chemist Vil Mirzayanov later published the formula for Novichok in State Secrets, a widely available book about Moscow’s chemical weapons program. According to Mirzayanov himself, anyone with the book and requisite components could have concocted the nerve agent allegedly unleashed on the Skripals. How does that incriminate Russia?
The official narrative is questionable on other grounds, too. The Russians vehemently deny committing this crime, meaning that if they did it, they probably did not want the world to know. Why, then, use a nerve agent that everybody associates with Moscow? Are the Russians really that harebrained?
Maybe the Trump administration theorizes that the Kremlin’s master plan was to insist upon Russia’s innocence while still scaring the bejeebers out of Moscow’s detractors by using an obviously Russian poison that – in spite of Vladimir Putin’s face-saving denial – would inevitably trigger unease among Russian dissidents. According to this theory, Moscow was striving for a delicate balance, seeking to inspire fear of the Kremlin without jeopardizing Russia’s plausible deniability.
This "balancing act" theory is not ridiculous, but surely the Russians realize that any mysterious crime against a Russian ex-spy – conducted with or without a recognizable Russian poison – is enough to provoke suspicion (and therefore fear) of Russia. If the Russians wanted to intimidate their critics without sparking a huge Western backlash, then, they probably would have had reservations about choosing a poison that screams "Russia!" for the entire Western world to hear.
Okay, but who other than the Russians would have wanted to poison the Skripals? Gee, I don’t know – maybe someone keen to frame the Kremlin by engineering an attack that the impetuous "Confront Russia" crowd would happily blame on Moscow? In case it is not yet clear, there are bellicose people on both sides of the Atlantic eager to portray the Kremlin as a dire threat to Western civilization. Is it really so absurd to wonder whether some group of them, perhaps with the connivance of high-ranking U.S. or British officials, perpetrated this attack as a pretext for "retaliation" against Russia?
Of course, as time has passed and the government-peddled falsehoods about Saddam Hussein have faded from public view, it has become increasingly taboo again to acknowledge the mere possibility that Western officials lie. And yet they do lie, and some have indeed gone to the extraordinary lengths of hatching criminal plots to pin on their adversaries. The CIA’s Operation WASHTUB, for example, had operatives plant Soviet materiel in Nicaragua in 1954 in order to "prove" that Moscow was supporting Guatemalan Prime Minister Jacobo Árbenz. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer followed that up in 1962 with Operation Northwoods, a proposal to overthrow Fidel Castro "in response" to a series of "Cuban" terrorist attacks to be conducted clandestinely by the U.S. government. It never came to fruition, though not for a lack of commitment on Lemnitzer’s part.
If it could happen during the Cold War, then why not today? Human nature hasn’t disappeared since then, and neither has the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. The Cold War era’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still alive and kicking, and proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia have returned with a vengeance, accompanied by frenetic suggestions that we "need" to confront our dreaded enemies overseas. Admitting it may be uncomfortable, but the environment is ripe for U.S. and British chicanery.
To be sure, we may discover some day that this particular act of chicanery was Russian after all. But with the New Cold War fully on, it would be foolish just to take the Trump administration’s word for it. As we know by now, there are power brokers in Washington who, if given a free pass, will use even the most dubious accusations of Russian misconduct to intensify the drumbeats of war. We cannot let them get away with anything, lest the worst come to pass.
Tommy Raskin is a writer working on Middle East policy in Washington, DC. Send him email at email@example.com.