Novichok and Nonsense: From a Post-Factual to a Post-Logic World

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” These words of sage commentary from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York State were overturned half a decade ago when we entered the world of “fake news” and facts became irrelevant to public discourse. Since then American political elites and their respective media outlets on both sides of debate have shamelessly invented the “facts” as suited their latest polemical position. The occasional modifier of what cannot be factually proven is “highly likely.”

Regrettably the latest news coming out of Germany yesterday regarding the Navalny poisoning case indicates a further ratcheting down of the possibilities for civil discourse in the direction of dispute resolution by brute force, that is to say, by war. Our leaders seem to have taken leave of their senses and are putting to us narratives that absolutely defy logic.

Chancellor Merkel announced that German military experts attribute Alexei Navalny’s poisoning to the Russian nerve agent Novichok, the same poison that was allegedly used by the Russian military intelligence forces against the Skripals in Salisbury.  We have heard a great deal about Novichok in that connection, but the single most relevant information to the present case is that it is a tightly controlled substance which only state entities might have access to and that its use would have to be approved at the highest levels. Given this background, given that the Russians were notified of the expertise findings on Navalny by megaphone diplomacy, that is to say without any prior warning via diplomatic channels, and given the insistent demand by Merkel, backed up moments later by the head of NATO, by the head of the European Commission and by a spokesman of the White House that the Russians explain what happened, what we have here is a very lightly disguised accusation that Vladimir Putin ordered the poisoning. All the ducks in the West are now aligned against Russia, with Mme Merkel leading the charge.

Russian counter-demands that the proofs of German toxicity findings be shared with them have gone unanswered, just as they were in the Skripal case.  Thus, a Russian “explanation” of what happened to Navalny in the Tomsk before his flight will almost certainly not satisfy their accusers in the West.

What we may expect next is a new round of Western sanctions against Russia, quite possibly entailing suspension of the highly contested Nord Stream II pipeline project. If that is so, then the Navalny poisoning will have turned around the German state position on relations with Russia – and with the United States, which has tried unsuccessfully to cancel Nord Stream II by bullying Germany – just as the downing of MH 17 in the summer of 2014 brought Europe on board the US-led sanctions campaign against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Ukrainian civil war in the Donbass.

The only problem with this entire scenario is that is makes absolutely no sense from start to finish. Even reputable mainstream newspapers like The Financial Times said in their reporting from the outset of the Navalny case that there were many oligarchs in Russia, including one or two whom they named, who would gladly have organized the murder of Navalny for their own reasons, whereas the Kremlin had every reason not to want this anti-corruption, anti-Putin campaigner to be harmed because the reaction in the West was entirely predictable. The Editorial Board of the FT was busy cooking up a wholly different case for sanctions against Russia which they released one day ago: should Putin order his forces to intervene in Belarus to crush the opposition to President Lukashenko.

Now the identification of Novichok as the poison takes the whole scenario to a level of utter absurdity.  Had the Kremlin wanted to silence Navalny, which is the basic accusation that Merkel delivered yesterday, it had a vast array of means to do so.  Given what we have heard about the tight controls applied to this military grade poison and its identification as specifically Russian in origin, the Russian President might just as well have had Navalny’s throat slit and written his signature on the blogger’s forehead.

But even this illogic passes muster in our media. We are told that Putin wanted to show that he can do whatever he likes, to thumb his finger at the West for its pusillanimity. To cut to the quick, we are being told that Vladimir Putin is a madman. And the message is coming from none other than Angela Merkel, still leader of Europe’s strongest economy, most populous nation, and determining force of policies in Brussels.  In which case, suspension of Nord Stream II would be a mere tap on the wrist. The logic, if any can be salvaged from her story, is that Putin should be physically eliminated, like Saddam Hussein, like Gaddafi….for “violating all of our fundamental values” as she claimed yesterday.

I found it most interesting that the BBC World reportage on the Navalny case yesterday evening explained to listeners that Russian state possession of the agent Novichok would be in violation of the convention on chemical weapons, which is why a domestic Russian crime becomes an international cause celèbre. At the same time they noted that both Germany and the United Kingdom have “small quantities” of Novichok in their military labs for control purposes.  Insofar as it has relevance in our post-logic world, I would suggest that both Germany and the United Kingdom intelligence forces are as likely to have had the means to poison Mr. Navalny as the Kremlin’s forces, and unlike the Kremlin, they had far more reason to do so.  It is scarcely believable that the Kremlin did it. It is scarcely believable that Russian oligarchs did it, since they would then be pointing a finger directly at Putin and would not survive.

One final point is that the Navalny poisoning comes at a moment in international relations that is vastly different from that which prevailed at the time of the Skrypal poisonings two years ago.  Back then there was only one Big Baddy in the world, Russia.  Today, the United States under Donald Trump has shifted the global villain’s label to the People’s Republic of China and in the run-up to the November elections, he has steadily raised the diplomatic, military and commercial pressure on the PRC in areas as diverse as uncoupling the economies to bolstering ties with Taiwan. Trump has been twisting arms in Europe to follow the American lead on China, but resistance on this issue has been surely much greater than resistance over sanctions on Russia.  As we learned during the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister to Germany two days ago, the PRC is Germany’s largest export market, with annual sales topping two hundred billion euros. Given these facts, Mme Merkel has every reason to redirect Europe and America’s lust for sanctions to her neighbor directly to the East, the Russian Federation. That is to say, she has “every reason” if logic plays any role today in state behavior.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2020