Russia and the Nerve Agent Attack: The Weight of Evidence

Why there is substance to UK’s “highly likely” assessment of Russia’s involvement in attempted assassination in Salisbury in southern England


Shashank Joshi writes for The Interpreter:


On Tuesday, the head of Britain’s Porton Down laboratory caused a stir when he admitted that his scientists had not identified the “precise source” of the Novichok nerve agent used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and Skripal’s daughter Yulia on 4 March. The comment will give succor to sceptics such as Tom Switzer, who last week argued on The Interpreter that “there is still no evidence – none – about the identity of the culprit”.

In fact, there is less to this row than meets the eye. Had the UK traced the Novichok to a Russian laboratory, they would have said so earlier. Instead, the UK’s case is built on three other interlocking pieces of evidence.

See also Podcasts: Nerve Agent Attack — How Russian Propaganda Exploited a UK #MediaFail

First is the use of a military-grade nerve agent, originally developed by Moscow. That, as the Porton Down chief emphasised, is “only within the capabilities of a state actor”.

Second, and beyond Porton Down’s remit, is evidence based on secret intelligence that Russia has manufactured and stockpiled small quantities of Novichok within the past decade, and investigated its use for assassination.

Third is the assessment, also informed by intelligence, that Russia has an active program of state-backed assassinations, views defectors as legitimate targets, and has passed laws to enable such action.

All of this constitutes evidence, some of which can be confirmed by independent third parties, such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, at the UK’s invitation. (Regrettably, Russia itself has openly undermined the OPCW’s work in Syria, and has pre-emptively dismissed its work in Salisbury.) Other elements, based on human sources or signals intelligence, cannot.

But the unprecedented international rejoinder to Russia – the largest collective expulsion of intelligence officers in history – demonstrates the strength of British claims. EU diplomats noted that Britain’s briefings, “including much that is not in the public domain”, were “extremely convincing” on Russian responsibility. It is reported that the UK divulged “unprecedented levels of intelligence”.

That is why 28 countries, or a remarkable 15% of UN member states – including neutral countries (Ireland), non-EU members (Albania), and those close to Russia (Hungary) – looked at the UK’s evidence and judged it compelling enough to justify action that would result in the loss of their own personnel in Moscow. That is also why Russia’s absurd effort to force a joint investigation slumped to defeat at the OPCW on Wednesday.

Are we to suppose that these governments are all dupes, their various security services tricked by feeble evidence – “assertion and bombast”, as Switzer puts it – conjured up in London?

The alternatives to Russian culpability also strain credulity. One of the Russian scientists who helped to develop Novichok has stated that any stockpiles held in the former Soviet Union would have “long since decomposed”, undercutting theories that rely on Uzbek or Ukrainian stocks.

Russia’s preferred conspiracy theory – chosen after running through a dozen or so others – is that the UK attacked its own citizen, and imperilled the lives of hundreds of others in Salisbury, as a “political provocation”. We are to believe that the British State was devious enough to conspire a false-flag chemical weapons attack, but forgot to instruct Porton Down on what line to take.

Finally, we should be clear about the nature of evidence in international relations. The world of intelligence estimates is, as the CIA puts it, “A world of closed covenants secretly arrived at, of national business conducted behind the walls of all but impenetrable security, of skilfully planned deceptions, and so on”.

That is why estimative, or probabilistic language is used. When the British Government says Russian culpability is “highly likely”, this indicates more than 80% likelihood (see page 13 of the US Intelligence Community’s report on Russian election interference). Moreover, the British intelligence assessment process has been rigorously scrutinized and reformed in the 15 years since 2003.

Those who call for ironclad proof – often the same people who accepted, on a similar evidentiary standard, Israeli culpability for assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists, or America’s role in the Stuxnet cyber attack – are setting the bar artificially and unreasonably high. Such a threshold would allow adversaries to act with impunity, under a veneer of implausible deniability.

Meanwhile, the question is whether the UK can keep up the pressure on Russia. The British Government will be dismayed that US President Donald Trump invited Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the White House in the midst of the crisis, and that Russia will be allowed to replace the expelled diplomats, rather than face the sort of personnel ceiling that would really constrain its spies.

Russia has also doubled the size of its retaliatory expulsion of British staff in Moscow, looking to isolate the UK and test Britain’s resolve to escalate the matter.

But the most important steps may be those taking place in the shadows, as intelligence agencies across the West enter a new era of coordination and collaboration against a Russian State which, as MI5 put it last year, is “operating to risk thresholds which are nothing like” those in the West.

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Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

26 COMMENTS

  1. First is the use of a military-grade nerve agent, originally developed by Moscow. That, as the Porton Down chief emphasised, is “only within the capabilities of a state actor”.

    1. The Porton Down chief was referring to the production of large stocks of the agent. Given the lethality of the agent, only a small quantity produced in a laboratory would have been needed.
    2. Anyone with a high degree of proficiency in organic chemistry and a suitable faculty could give that that ingredients are considered readily available.
    3. The formula for producing the never agent has been on the public domain for over a decade.
    4. Claiming that only a state actor would have the capabilities to produce such a nerve agent does not rule out state actors other than Russia

    Second, and beyond Porton Down’s remit, is evidence based on secret intelligence that Russia has manufactured and stockpiled small quantities of Novichok within the past decade, and investigated its use for assassination.

    Pure speculation and wishful thinking. There is no such evidence. Not only that, but this argument doesn’t hold water.

    1. Scotland Yard has come out and stated that this would require a long and painstaking investigation to determine who was responsible
    2. The OPCW maintains that all of the nerve agent in Russia has been destroyed or removed.
    3. If it is true that MI6 had evidence Russia had manufactured and stockpiled small quantities of Novichok, then why have they not informed the OPCW? And let’s not hide behind the claim that this is secret or needs to protect sources. If the British government have seen fit to tell the public now, they could cerainly have unformed the OPCW over the last decade
    4. This is the same intelligence apparatus that lied us into the Iraq War, so what credibility do they have?

    Third is the assessment, also informed by intelligence, that Russia has an active program of state-backed assassinations, views defectors as legitimate targets, and has passed laws to enable such action.

    This is not evidence at all. All major powers have the same program.

    The British government delayed the invitation to the OPCW for a full ten days. One possible explanation is that they were hoping to pressure Porton Down to back up the lies by Boris Johnson, but lost that battle. One need only think tback to the Blair government’s pressure on Goldsmith to change his position overnight on the legality of the Iraq war.

    EU diplomats noted that Britain’s briefings, “including much that is not in the public domain”, were “extremely convincing” on Russian responsibility. It is reported that the UK divulged “unprecedented levels of intelligence”.

    Pretty much all of these states are NATO members followed Britain request as a sign of solidarity. Let’s remember that states like Australia said the evidence against Saddam were also compelling, so there is a history of states being duped.

    • I appreciate you are scrambling here, but your reply is riddled with factual errors as well as speculation and faulty logic.

      • Scrambling over what Scott? There is no new evidence or revelations made in this piece from the rampantly Russophobic Interperter. It is clear that Johnson’s lies have dealt a major blow to the British government, and has put then in the unfortunate position of either having to admit error of judgement, or dig in and refuse to give ground. The British government’s case is filled with holes. There is no way MI6 could have come up with evidence that leaves “no doubt” while Scotland Yard tells us the outcome of the investigation is a long way off. There is no explanation as to why British intel claims they have known of a secret program to produce nerve agent and deliver it, while failing to shares these findings with the OPCW.

      • Prof Lucas – please be so kind as to inform us which of Andre’s claims are unsupported or deficient in logic (I can’t see any).

        He might also have wondered why we should ‘in good faith’ take the worf of governments who have actively suppressed discussion of Novichoks in the OPCW?

        You, as the author of this piece ask us to accept the integrity of the secret evidence whilst ignoring the clear deficiencies in that which has been presented so far – a ‘military-grade’, super-deadly nerve agent that hasn’t yet killed anyone?

        If we add to that the quality of the recently leaked ‘intelligence’ then the narrative you are attempting to support becomes increasingly preposterous. We have to believe that the dastardly Russians have concocted the worlds first delayed-action super-deadly nerve agent, but it’s alright because the UK’s intelligence assessment procedures have been ‘reformed’.

        With respect to these reforms, it could very well be that May and, particularly, Johnson are working at their extremes anyway – that the evidence they have is, in actual fact, very much less clear than they have stated or, to use their term now, ‘suggested’. The record of these people and very careful language that at least May has used puts the weight of evidence very firmly behind this supposition.

        • I appreciate, given your point of view on other topics concerning Russia such as Syria, that you would not see the flaws in both fact and logic in Andre’s multiple posts.

          And I’m afraid that you have presented no facts or logic for your own polemic.

          • You can follow links to Wikileaks cables showing the UK and US governments efforts to suppress discussion of Novichoks here:

            http://www.moonofalabama.org/2018/03/clinton-state-department-discouraged-novichok-discussion.html

            As for my ‘delayed action’ claim – it’s simply follows from the recent news oft he Novichok being present on the door handle (see the TImes on Thursday and pretty much every UK newspaper for that matter) – and the Skripal’s previously reported movements – succumbing to the ‘agent’ after at least two hours where they felt well enough to enjoy a nice lunch. Have you not been paying attention?

            • There are good reasons why UK and US would have wanted to keep Novichoks out of a formal OPCW discussion. Among them would be a wish not to reveal their state of intelligence and sources of intelligence in a body where the Russians are present. Instead, the cable indicated that US and UK would communicate with allies directly rather than through OPCW.

              There have been multiple claims in press about where Skripals may have been exposed to the Novichok-class nerve agent. As for the door handle, the stories reported that there was a heightened presence in that area. That could have occurred not because agent was applied directly on handle but because of other contact in the area.

              This has been whipped up by pro-Russia activists as the diversionary “if it was Novichok, Skripals would have died immediately”. That assumption is flawed for a number of reasons. Here is a starting point: http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/04/06/myth-busting-why-didn-t-the-skripals-die-on-the-spot

              • It’s funny that Kaszeta tries to disparage the term ‘military grade’ as being “completely pointless” when the May government has been milking it for all it’s worth as did the specialists at Porton Down.

                We are told this agent is 10 times as lethal as VX. A drop of this substance could potentially kill hundreds of people. And now were are expected believe that the Russians went to all the trouble of poising the victims while choosing a method of administering it that had such a high risk of failure.

                Even if we are to accept that the nerve agent could have worked over a period of of hours, the Skripals did not even exhibit an initial reaction to exposure, nor at any point throughout their luncheon until they were found on a park bench.

                Again, all this shows is that the government story is falling apart.

              • Thank you for repeating the Russian State propaganda line about Novichok. It’s still bullshit.

              • Reading Kaszeta’s analysis, the most glaring issue is the contradiction with the British government’s claims that the Russians had investigated ways to deliver the nerve agent.

                According to Kaszeta, applying the nerve agent to the door handle is extremely ineffective and inefficient. Surely the experts in Russia would know what Dan Kazeta knows, especially given their cold climate (ie. tagets wearing gloves in winter). As Kaszeta also points out,

                “Second, if something happened to reduce the intended dose – for instance if the person opening a door handle was wearing gloves – then a possibly quite lethal dose could have been mitigated to a lower one.”

                “Salisbury is not known for an arid climate.”

                Picture Putin spooks across the road watching the Skripals leave the house and swearing uncontrollably that they hadn’t thought of gloves. Hilarious.

                Once again, even more holes appear in the anti Russia theory.

              • There are a series of erroneous readings and assumptions in the post, beginning with the assumption that Novichok was applied directly to the door handle of the Skripals’ house.

              • There are a series of erroneous readings and assumptions in the post, beginning with the assumption that Novichok was applied directly to the door handle of the Skripals’ house
                But that is the assumption Dan Kaszeta makes in his article.

          • The flaws are o your own thesis Scott, which is collapsing by the day.

            Your claim was that Britain provided secret compelling evidence to it’s allies in Europe to convince them to undertake their expulsions of Russian diplomats. Germany now says the UK provided zero evidence to back its very serious accusations and the vast majority of the world agrees.

            BERLIN (Reuters) – Britain needs to show proof that Russia was behind last month’s poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in England, the German government’s coordinator for Russia said on Thursday.

            Gernot Erler said pressure was rising on Prime Minister Theresa May’s government after Britain’s military research centre, at Porton Down, said on Tuesday it could not say yet whether the nerve agent used in the attack had been produced in Russia.

            “That contradicts what we had previously heard from British politicians and will certainly raise the pressure on Britain to show further proof that the traces plausibly point to Moscow,” Erler told German broadcaster ARD.

            Armin Laschet, head of Germany’s most populous state North Rhine-Westphalia and an ally of Merkel, also questioned the British behavior

            If you force almost all NATO allies to solidarity, should you not have assured evidence? You can stand towards Russia however you like, but in my the studies of international law I learned of other ways of dealing with states.

            • Actually, if you understood the article, you would realize that the Germans did *not* say that the UK had not shown them evidence — but that they wanted this to be produced in public.

              [Erler] added that additional secret service information appeared to have led Britain to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

              “Apparently, there were such reports from the British side, based on secret service information, so that not only Porton Down played a role but also additional information,” Erler said.

              “But these (reports) are not known publicly and now there is pressure for more of this information to be made known, otherwise the whole thing is not transparent,” he said.

              Which is precisely what I set out in the radio interviews.

    • Well, there is a difference between making a compound and creating an operable nerve agent — the latter requires a large-scale laboratory if you are not going to kill yourself.

      Professor Collum is an isolated voice within the scientific community, albeit a convenient one for conspiracy theorists. Indeed, he himself appears to favor the conspiracy theories of a site like ZeroHedge.

      • An isolated voice perhaps, but could you point us to some links from similarly eminent scientists who disagree with Prof Collum? Thanks.

        • You probably could start with the specialists at Porton Down, the French colleagues they consulted over the Skripal, the US research community, and the man who was one of the leaders of the Novichuk-class program, Vil Mirzayanov.

          • You probably could start with the specialists at Porton Down

            You seem to have forgotten how experts claimed the aluminium tubes in Iraq were proof of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program. The experts claimed that the tolerances to which the tubes had been fabricated meant they could only be used in centrifuges.

            • You people desperately need a new talking point to try to divert attention. Constantly repeating “Iraq this Iraq that” doesn’t prove shit except that you have nothing of substance to add beyond your typical kremlin talking points and diversionary tactics. What the hell does Iraq have to do with a former Russian spy being poisoned by a substance created and produced only by Russia? The inevitable and consistent conspiracy theories of “false flag” attacks does make me laugh.

              • You people desperately need a new talking point to try to divert attention.

                Not at all. Merely pointing out the gaping holes in the official story. For example, Scott keeps deferring to the intelligence agencies, but if they did indeed have evidence, the British government would not be referring about “plausible” scenarios, but intelligence itself.

                Constantly repeating “Iraq this Iraq that” doesn’t prove shit except that you have nothing of substance to add beyond your typical kremlin talking points and diversionary tactics.
                Wrong Kevin. As they say, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. You seem eager to be shamed.

                What the hell does Iraq have to do with a former Russian spy being poisoned by a substance created and produced only by Russia?
                What evidence is there it was produced only by Russia? Oh that’s right, there isn’t any.

      • Well, there is a difference between making a compound and creating an operable nerve agent — the latter requires a large-scale laboratory if you are not going to kill yourself.

        You are making this up as you go along Scott. The ingredients are themselves benign and the nerve agent is a binary compound that needs to be combined just prior to being administered.There is no reason why this process should present any danger to those in the laboratory provided sufficient care is maintained to keep the binary compounds isolated.

        • A compound is not an active nerve agent. And you have no clue about the danger involved in the process.

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