The Salisbury poisoning
A NERVE agent poisoning has occurred in England, in which Sergei Skripal, a 66-year-old former Russian military intelligence colonel— who spied for Britain from the early 1990s to 2004 and served in a Moscow prison for six years before being returned to London in a spy swap between the United States and Russia in 2010— together with his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, was found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury, eight miles from Porton Down, a British science park where the UK Ministry of Defense Science and Technology Laboratory is said to develop chemical weapons, among other things. Since March 4 when it happened, the victims, according to reports, have remained critically ill in hospital.
The nerve agent has been identified as “Novichok.” No clear and hard evidence has revealed its actual source; various accounts say Novichok was first produced in a Soviet laboratory in Uzbekistan in the 1980s, but the facility was reportedly completely destroyed by the US after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In September 2017, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons certified that Russia had destroyed its entire chemical weapons program, the reports said. This has been repeatedly pointed out since the Salisbury incident.
However, Soviet dissident chemist Vil S. Mirzayanov, 83, now reportedly living in Princeton, is said to have written about Novichok in his book, State Secrets: Chronicle of the Russian Chemical Weapons Program. This book may have made Novichok readily available for reproduction by various parties, according to a Wall Street Journal article on March 16. Mirzayanov and Seamus Martin, the renowned former international editor of the Irish Times and elder brother of the cardinal-archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, have been quoted as saying Novichok was widely expropriated by East bloc oligarchs in the 1990s.
Theresa May’s ultimatum
On March 12, despite the lack of clarity on the origin and control of the chemical agent, British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a speech to Parliament, said: “It is now clear that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of the type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok.’
“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia previously produced the agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defections as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
She offered two plausible explanations of how Russia could have done it. “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” the Prime Minister said.
What she needed was a “smoking gun” and an evidence-backed categorical declaration that Russia did it. But what she told Parliament was a spectacular speculation that “it is highly likely” Russia did it. And she proceeded to say Russian President Vladimir Putin had “24 hours” —”until Tuesday midnight”—to explain the incident or face retaliation “for a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
This was the first time one nuclear power gave another nuclear power a 24-hour ultimatum since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. And it was happening days after Putin revealed in his March 1 State of the Union Address that Russia had achieved unparalleled superiority in the area of missile defense systems which, in his own words, rendered all other defense systems useless. And also days before he would be reelected by a landslide to his fourth term as President of the Russian Federation, which has prompted some Russian commentators to describe him as “Vozhd,” a Slavonic loanword that means “leader” in a special sense, which a much older generation had used to refer to Stalin and Lenin.
So, on March 14, Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats for being “undeclared intelligence agents.” And Russia promptly retaliated by expelling 23 British diplomats, and closing down the British Council in Moscow and the British consulate in St. Petersburg. Putin said he would tailor his future response to any further provocation.
On March 18, Putin won his latest landslide by 77 percent of the votes. While many world leaders, including our own President Rodrigo Duterte, congratulated him, some anti-Putin commentators tried to minimize the value of the election. No congratulations came from Buckingham Palace or No. 10 Downing Street, and US President Donald Trump stirred a hornet’s nest within the White House when he called to congratulate Putin but failed to say anything about Russia’s alleged interference in his own election in 2016.
Trump was lavishly excoriated by his own people and some opinion writers for failing to follow the advice of his staff to call Putin, if he must, but “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” him on his election. I found it completely embarrassing to see a popularly elected American president being micromanaged by his appointed staff.
It is not clear how this diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow will resolve itself, but the international community cannot afford to let it deteriorate into anything worse than it is now. This includes the Filipino public even though our parochial oligarchic press does not seem to believe this crisis merits a single fron- page story in our newspapers.
Aside from the injury this has inflicted on both Russia and the United Kingdom, it has imposed an unfair burden on those who regard both parties as friends of equal worth and find no need to choose between one and the other. One can love Pushkin, Mayakovsky and Dostoevsky as much as they can love Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Dickens; enjoy the Bolshoi and the Kirov ballets as much as the best of the operas and theater in London.
Independent view needed
Instead of stoking what appears to be a growing “Russophobia” in the air, it would be our best interest if Britain and Russia could agree that the technical secretariat of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should undertake an “independent laboratory analysis” of the samples in the possession of the British authorities.
Russia’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya has proposed this, according to reports, and Britain should have nothing to fear from it. Under Paragraph 2, Article IX of the Chemical Weapons Convention, “a State Party that receives a request from another State Party for clarification shall provide the requesting State Party with information as soon as possible—not later than 10 days after the request.”
As soon as all the facts are in, then the international community, not just Russia and Britain, could have a common appreciation of the situation. This would be the best way of avoiding serious accusations and conclusions against any party ahead or bereft of the facts.
In a statement from the UN, Nebenzya recalled that in the 1970s, many countries, notably the US and the Soviet Union, established programs for creating new types of nerve and paralytic agents known as VX. In 1992, Russia terminated all development efforts in this area, but the US did not. The OPCW has verified the destruction of all existing stocks of Russia’s chemical weapons, the ambassador said.
In the mid-1990s, Western secret services brought many of Russia’s specialists to the West. They created new toxic substances, classified under Novichok.
On March 14, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW Ambassador Alexander Shulgin told the 87th Session of the OPCW at the Hague that Russia’s destruction of its chemical arsenal in 2017 was three years ahead of time.
Because other countries continued to develop the nerve agent, Russian ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko suggested the chemical used in Salisbury could have come from any of these countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, the US, and Britain itself.
For whose benefit?
These are of course all speculations. But what benefit could Moscow have possibly expected to derive from trying to get rid of Skirpal after his prosecution, sentencing, prison term, pardon and handover to the British authorities, when he no longer posed any threat to Russia? And why should Russia risk getting involved in such situation just a few days before Putin’s certain reelection and a few months before the World Cup football tournament in Moscow? These are the questions raised by the Russians.
An article by Barbara Boyd in the current issue of the US-based Executive Intelligence Review suggests that Russia, instead of being the malefactor here is actually the victim of hostile operations by a group identified with British imperial interests. This reportedly includes Christopher Steele, MI6’s former Russian intelligence chief, who was allegedly paid by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign to paint Donald Trump as a “Manchurian candidate, Putin’s pawn.” Skirpal’s recruiter and handler, Pablo Miller, was also Steele’s pawn, being a consultant at Orbis Business Intelligence, Steele’s private firm, according to the article.
The Boyd article suggests that the British group is motivated by a desire for lost grandeur. It quotes an article by Allister Heath in the March 14 issue of the Sunday Telegraph as saying, “We need a new world order to take on totalitarian capitalists in Russia and China… Such an alliance…would dramatically shift the balance of power, and allow the liberal democracies finally to fight back. It would endow the world with the shorts of robust institutions that are required to contain Russia and China…Britain needs a new role in the world; building such a network would be our perfect mission.”
Many conspiracy theories could be raised on both sides. The truth is that for whatever valid or invalid reason, there are many in this country who look at Russia and Putin with no small amount of fear. Why is this, and what is the cure for it? This is just one of the many questions which we would like to see answered with some intelligence. For this purpose, I have invited Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev to talk to me on my TV program “Una Sa Lahat” (First Things First) on Destiny Cable at 8 to 9 p.m. this Sunday and 8 to 9 Monday morning. Do tune in.