Skripal Affair Becomes Spark To Reignite West's Anti-Russia Campaign
Just as media reports about Russia's alleged meddling in the US election started to die down, in 2018 Moscow faced another series of evidence-free accusations, provoked by the attempted poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK city of Salisbury in March
MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 01st January, 2019) Just as media reports about Russia's alleged meddling in the US election started to die down, in 2018 Moscow faced another series of evidence-free accusations, provoked by the attempted poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK city of Salisbury in March.
The London-led campaign, which was rapidly developing based on "highly likely" allegations, labeled the Russian authorities as masterminds of the chemical attack against the Skripals. The United Kingdom claimed that they had been exposed to a chemical substance identified by UK experts as the A234 nerve agent.
The UK government's claims have been eagerly supported by other European countries as well as the United States and resulted in a diplomatic row between Moscow and the West, which has recalled dozens of diplomats from Russia over the Salisbury attack. The West also disregarded the fact that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had confirmed long ago that Russia's chemical arsenal was destroyed.
The anti-Russia "crusade" was gaining momentum against the backdrop of Moscow's numerous offers to cooperate with London in probing the case and requests to be granted access to the poisoned Russian citizens. All offers went unanswered by the UK authorities, making Moscow think that that the case was nothing but the West's attempt to incite anti-Russia sentiments and negatively stereotype the country within the international community.
The Western campaign against Russia did not confine itself to the Skripal affair and was later reflected in new accusations alleging Russia's GRU military intelligence agency's involvement in a cyberattack on the OPCW, the detention and subsequent arrest of a Russian upper house staff member in Oslo on charges of illegal data collection and, most recently, in the spying scandal involving a retired Austrian colonel.
This information warfare against Moscow has been dubbed by a number of Russian officials "spymania" due to the trumped-up nature of the allegations, which, according to many, were aimed at completely destroying the relationship between the West and Russia.
On March 4, Wiltshire Police said that a man and a woman were found unconscious on a bench at a shopping center in Salisbury after having been exposed to an unknown substance. The first media reports suggesting that the victims were former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia emerged just several hours later, and the first claims about a "Russian trace" were not far behind.
UK law enforcement had barely offered any substantial statements regarding what might have happened in Salisbury when what used to be only claims in media � scenarios suggesting a Russian state-sponsored attack � turned into London's official position, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May's "highly likely" accusations, voiced within a week after the incident, standing as a crowning moment of the so-called high-profile case that had suddenly emerged.
Just as London made its allegations, turning a blind eye to the presumption of innocence and, in doing so, showing the degradation of justice in the country, in an ultimatum to Russia, May demanded an explanation for the poisoning, even though Russia's involvement was never proved.
The events gave off an impression that the culprit had been found even before the incident took place, with Russia's numerous attempts to employ mechanisms provided for by international law in order to bring at least some common sense to what was happening remaining unanswered.
Nicholas Anderson, who worked for the UK Secret Intelligence Service for about two decades and wrote a number of stories about covert activities based on his life experience, told Sputnik that it was quite common for governments around the world to hide the real course of events from the general public.
"I think, I'm fairly steeped in the ways and wherewithal of my nation's so-called actions in the 'national interest,' but I seriously do not think Britain will press charges against Russia over the Skripal case because it will not be able to prove charges in any court of law ... All governments like to bullshit, but we ourselves in Britain have a long history of disrupting denying," former MI6 officer Anderson told Sputnik.
Nine months have passed since the attack, but there are still more questions than answers regarding the poisoning. What seems to be particularly interesting is the substance used against the Skripals, identified by the UK experts as a military-grade nerve agent of the so-called Novichok group.
Against the backdrop of reproaches directed against London over the lack of substantiated evidence in the Skripal case, London found "that very" argument that put things together: Russia could be blamed for the Skripals' poisoning because London claimed that the nerve agent allegedly used in the attack was originally produced in the Soviet Union.
Neither the Russian authorities' assurances that Novichok-group nerve agents had never been produced in post-Soviet Russia nor the evidence that work on such chemical compounds had been carried out in a number of other states � the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom itself � could sway London.
In addition, experts argued that in order to identify a chemical agent a precursor was needed with which samples of a toxic substance could be compared, suggesting that the United Kingdom might have had stocks of the nerve agent in question, possibly in the Porton Down military research laboratory, situated not far from Salisbury.
"I and others, I know, have been highly skeptical that this incident took place so close to Porton Down, which is the UK's center for such research and development. But the experts ... are slightly misled about Novichok only being stocked by the Soviet Union/Russia. It was also stocked by its, then, allies in the Cold War. Ukraine, for example," Anderson said.
Dr. Colin Alexander, a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University, told Sputnik in his comments that it was not possible to confirm or deny the presence of stocks of certain nerve agents in any given country since such facilities were usually not subject to inspections.
"We have no way of verifying whether or not the Soviet Union [or] Russia is the only stockist of 'Novichok' and/or its antidote because facilities stocking it (or not) in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are always beyond inspection by public bodies. We essentially do not know the itinerary of the Porton Down facility, or any other top secret facility, so when the UK government or experts say that they do not have it we cannot prove this either way," Alexander said.
The fact that London did have samples of the so-called Novichok was eventually confirmed by former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and statements claiming that the nerve agent came directly from Russia were removed from the social media accounts of UK government offices.
PROBE ONGOING, BUT CHARGES ALREADY MADE
As London continued to insist that Moscow should provide an explanation for the Skripals' attempted assassination, Russia kept a level head, saying that it was open to cooperating in the investigation into the incident in accordance with procedures set out in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), despite the absence of reciprocity from London.
The UK prime minister, however, chose to ignore the Russian authorities' offers for cooperation and hastened to punish the "guilty party" by expelling 23 Russian diplomats and suspending all high-level contacts between the two countries, never providing clear evidence of Moscow's involvement in the case.
The new anti-Russia campaign based on provocation came as the European Union, mired in internal divisions and plagued by the Brexit impasse, showed extraordinary unanimity in accusing Russia of the attack on the GRU officer. Over 25 countries, including the United States, decided to expel Russian diplomats "in solidarity" with London, joining the UK-led operation against Moscow. The Russian authorities condemned the West's steps and retaliated by also expelling foreign diplomats.
Meanwhile, London tried to use all possible means to further fuel the Skripal case and support its unfounded accusations and requested the OPCW Technical Secretariat to carry out an investigation into the Salisbury incident.
London, however, failed to trigger the mechanism prescribed by the CWC, under which the samples of the chemical agent should have been collected single-handedly by OPCW experts at the site of the incident, provoking Russia's concerns over the possibility of a biased and nontransparent probe.
"Every person and every organization is subject to bias. We do what we can to make things as fair and equitable as possible. One way we work toward this ideal is through the operation of a free press, whereby facts are made known to the public so that conclusions can be made based on truthful evidence," Dr. Rudy J. Richardson, a professor of toxicology at University of Michigan, told Sputnik.
Dr. Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, in turn, said in his comments to Sputnik that the OPCW could not afford to be biased against any participating party, arguing that the organization should represent all its member states.
"The new approach that OPCW must take to attribute blame, i.e. identify any user of a chemical weapon, may be such an opportunity [to ensure the organization's impartiality]. And this is because member states have an opportunity to agree on the procedure that OPCW will follow. In other words, they can discuss what evidence they would require for a case to be proved. They can also discuss how to get that evidence. Such a discussion could take place from now," Hay stated.
The diplomatic row between the West and Russia almost made the world forget about the Skripals themselves, with the ex-spy and his daughter having been carefully hidden from general public and media since the incident took place. Moscow has suggested that the two might have been held by the UK authorities forcibly.
Moscow's numerous requests to be provided consular access to the Russian citizens have been neglected by London, which, by doing so, showed complete disrespect for the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. London even prevented Skripal and his daughter from being visited by their relatives while they were hospitalized, giving rise to concerns about whether the attack had even taken place.
Fortunately, both Sergei and Yulia Skripal were discharged from the hospital where they were being treated. According to the Salisbury District Hospital's staff, the two victims, who were initially not expected to survive, managed to recover thanks to promptly provided treatment and the expertise of the Porton Down laboratory's specialists.
About a month and a half after leaving the hospital in Salisbury, Yulia Skripal made her first media appearance, in which she spoke about the treatment she received and expressed hope to return to Russia "in the longer term." The video brought Russian officials to suggest that Yulia Skripal might have been reciting a memorized statement due to the discrepancies in the use of language and her rehearsed manner of speaking.
When the Skripal affair started to fall apart and the name of the former GRU officer was only heard in the context of possible new Russia sanctions, the UK Crown Prosecution Service identified Russian nationals Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who, Prime Minister May claimed, were GRU officers, as perpetrators of the Salisbury attack.
However, London, in its habitual manner, refused to provide Moscow with any information on the matter, including personal information about the two suspects, who were identified by UK law enforcement based on photographs from surveillance cameras.
Even though the UK authorities failed to share information about these two suspects, Moscow managed to identify them, urging the two men to talk to the media and dispel rumours by telling the whole story themselves.
In a video interview with Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the RT broadcaster and Sputnik news agency, Petrov and Boshirov said they had visited the United Kingdom as tourists and refuted any involvement in the attack on the Skripals.
London, nevertheless, continued to play its blame game claiming that the interview was "another example of Russia's lies." Moscow, in turn, dismissed the allegations, stressing that the two Russian citizens could not be convicted since they had not violated any laws. It also said that the UK authorities' new attack on Russia was just absurd.
This anti-Russia campaign was also supported by organizations engaged in UK propaganda. The country's investigative blogger group Bellingcat, which has repeatedly published unconfirmed materials, presented an investigation claiming that Petrov and Boshirov were linked to Russia's security services. The group "supported" its assertions by citing obtained passport information of the two individuals, but this data alone cannot constitute proof of an individual's affiliation with the security services.
The Russian authorities have pointed to the group's prejudiced manner of coverage and the provocative manner of its publications, saying that Bellingcat was closely linked to the UK security services.
An obvious trend stood out in the information space over the past year: just as one provocation against Moscow outlived itself, another "scoop" on the country was immediately released to the international community.
In early October, the UK authorities came with a new series of accusations alleging the involvement of Russia's GRU in a number of cyberattacks on political bodies across the world, including the UK Foreign Office following the Salisbury attack. The day the allegations emerged, the Dutch authorities said that they had expelled four Russian citizens for an attempted cyberattack on the OPCW in early October.
The spymania campaign was soon joined by the United States, which named seven Russian nationals who allegedly hacked systems in the United States and Canada, as well as networks of international organizations. Thus, claims that Russia "highly likely" orchestrated the Skripals' attempted poisoning turned into allegations that Russia "almost certainly" was responsible for the cyberattacks.
Moscow viewed the new portion of claims as the West's attempt to demonize Russia and divert the Western public's attention from the attempts of the United States and its allies to boost their cyberpotential.
The same zero-evidence approach was demonstrated by the West in the September detention of Mikhail Bochkarev, a staff member of Russia's Federation Council, in Oslo on false espionage charges. Norwegian law enforcement, in particular, suspected Bochkarev of gathering data via wireless networks in the building of the country's parliament, where he had attended an IT conference. Bochkarev was then released due to absence of proof, but apologies and explanations have yet to be given to Moscow.
In the most recent case, the Austrian Defense Ministry said that it had been informed by a "friendly service" that a retired colonel of the country's armed forces had been spying for Russia for decades. Moscow condemned Vienna for pressing charges based on unsubstantiated suspicions, stressing that any bilateral disagreements should be discussed through established channels of communication and based on pure facts.
Throughout 2018, the Russian authorities have stressed on numerous occasions that the hysteria surrounding the Skripal case and related speculations had been unleashed by the West in order to maintain anti-Russia sentiments among the locals.
Meanwhile, the recent release of documents by hacktivist group Anonymous revealed that the United Kingdom had a network of covert structures across the world to meddle in the internal affairs of other states with the aim of counteracting Russia's alleged propaganda � all part of London's hybrid warfare project called Integrity Initiative � which was no surprise to those familiar with the UK security services from inside.
"My series of books ... details many of these shenanigans. The British people have been lied to for decades and I'd like to point out some of the discrepancies to the general public. We are not the kind of people though, like the French, who will rebel against the authorities. Nowadays the British are fairly mute in that respect, believing a lot of what the media tells them and never questioning," former Mi6 officer Anderson said.
He added, however, that UK citizens were not alone in blindly absorbing all information that is provided by the country's media without questioning who might be interested, arguing that it was an unfolding trend throughout the world.