The latest example of alleged Russian perfidy – the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia – is yet another case of faith-based attribution. In accusing Russia of some heinous crime – in this instance, the murder of a former double agent working for MI6 – one needn’t present any real evidence: it’s only necessary to point the finger at the Kremlin. And of course we haven’t had any real evidence proffered by the British government: Prime Minister Theresa May simply declared that Russia is the culprit and gave a midnight deadline for the Kremlin to explain how “its nerve weapon” – as NBC reported it – was used to attacked Skripal on British soil. She has since announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.
The absurdity of this was inadvertently underscored by the comments of Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian-born chemist who first revealed the existence of “Novichok,” the nerve agent developed by the Russians. Mirzayanov came to the United States in 1995: in 2007, he published a book, State Secrets, which tells his story as a chemist working in Russia’s secret chemical weapons facilities. Now 83, he gives the following explanation for the attack on Skripal:
“‘Only the Russians’ developed this class of nerve agents, said the chemist. ‘They kept it and are still keeping it in secrecy.’
“The only other possibility, he said, would be that someone used the formulas in his book to make such a weapon.”
Oh, but what kind of a person would do that? Why, that would have to mean that they were trying to frame the Russians by making it look like the work of the FSB, the Russian intelligence agency. And we all know that’s just not possible – right?
The “evidence” we are given to support the “Russia-did-it” scenario is that only the Russians have access to Novichok, and that it is such a sophisticated poison that only a state actor could have pulled off this attack. Yet the logic of this line of reasoning is quite shaky: Mirzayanov tells us it could be duplicated by anyone with a copy of his book! And this New York Times piece, which assumes Russia is the culprit, cites one Andrew C. Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, who visited “a secret, abandoned Soviet research facility in Nukus, Uzbekistan, which the United States was asked to helped destroy in the early 2000s.” Weber describes evidence of experiments on dogs, and then goes on to claim that
“It’s obviously tightly controlled by the Russian government. It’s implausible to me – possible, but not probable – that this chemical weapon would have been diverted from a Russian facility. It would be well guarded.”
Yet an American official was wandering around the facility, described as “abandoned” – and so how well-guarded was it? Furthermore, during the time described by Weber, Uzbekistan was no longer a part of the Soviet Union: the country declared its independence on August 31, 1991. After that, whatever happened to the Novichok production facilities in Uzbekistan was out of Moscow’s control – and stores of the lethal poison could’ve wound up anywhere.
Aside from the complete lack of credible evidence, the case against the Russians rests on a misunderstanding of the procedure involved in spy swaps. When Skripal was pardoned and released by the Russians in 2010, along with three others convicted of spying for the West, ten Russian spies were handed over to the Kremlin: according to the “spy etiquette” informally in force during the cold war era, these people were safe from retribution, because otherwise there would be no point to swapping prisoners.
So what would make the Russians break this cardinal rule of spycraft? No explanation is being given.
As professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, points out: if the Russians did indeed poison Skripal, “no one will ever do a swap with them again.” And he asks the logical question: “if Russia had really wanted to kill Skripal,” why didn’t they execute him when they had him in custody?
Of course there’s a Trump connection to all this: it turns out that Skripal was “close to” one Pablo Miller, the MI6 agent who originally recruited him – and who just happens to have worked for Orbis Business Intelligence, Christopher Steele’s outfit that put together the infamous dossier on Trump. As The Telegraph reports:
“The consultant, who The Telegraph is declining to identify, lived close to Col Skripal and is understood to have known him for some time… The Telegraph understands that Col Skripal moved to Salisbury in 2010 in a spy swap and became close to a security consultant employed by Christopher Steele, who compiled the Trump dossier. The British security consultant, according to a LinkedIn social network account that was removed from the internet in the past few days, is also based in Salisbury. On the same LinkedIn account, the man listed consultancy work with Orbis Business Intelligence, according to reports.”
The consultant is identified elsewhere as Pablo Miller, a.k.a., also Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo.
The usual suspects are speculating that Skripal was targeted by the Russians because he had a hand in compiling the Trump dossier – and yet the former Russian intelligence agent hadn’t been in his home country since 2010, and has lived in Salisbury, Great Britain, since that time. Orbis has denied he had any role in creating the dossier. And even if he did play some role in the dossier’s compilation, what would be the point of killing him – especially in a way that would point to Russia? It makes no sense. But then again, war propaganda doesn’t have to make sense, it has only to inspire fear and loathing.
This is a replay of the Litvinenko affair, which was based on similarly dubious “evidence.”: even the official British government report was ambiguous about Russia’s alleged responsibility for poisoning the exiled anti-Putin propagandist. It says that Putin “probably approved” the murder.
Probably. No need for exactitude in these matters: after all, we’re only talking about a country with enough nuclear weapons aimed at us – and the Brits – to wipe out the entire population of the planet. So “probably” is good enough.
Alexander Litvinenko was involved with all sorts of dubious characters, many of them linked to the Russian Mafia: any one of a number of these fine fellows could’ve killed him. As more of Skripal’s story comes out, one suspects that the same will prove true in his case.
That won’t stop the War Party from concocting yet another conspiracy theory pointing to the all-powerful Vladimir Putin as the source of all that’s bad in the world.
Don’t fall for it: instead, ask the question that’s pinned to the top of my Twitter feed: Where’s the evidence?
For Raimondo completists: Check out my piece in the Spectator on the GOP’s protectionist roots.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.