Murky waters: The attack on Sergei Skripal, the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, and the ‘Steele dossier’

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Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

A major new crisis, with potentially long-term ramifications, has begun between “the West” (essentially the UK, U.S., and European Union) and Russia without any major questioning as to the logic or causes of it.

The “crisis” centered around the assassination attempt in Salisbury, in the UK, against former Soviet intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, on March 4, 2018.

Forensic science experts with members of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism team at the home of Sergei Skripal in Christie Mill Road, Salisbury, UK. / The Sun

Major questions remain to be addressed — or even asked — about fundamental issues concerning both the incident itself and subsequent allegations of Russian Government involvement in the incident, indicating that there may be political motivations behind the “rush to judgment” against Moscow. The long-term strategic costs, however, must be weighed against short-term political gain.

Almost immediately after the attack on Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who was visiting him from Moscow, it was alleged by the UK Government — and supported by officials in Washington and Brussels — that the incident could only have been the work of the Russian Government. They remain, as of March 20, 2018, in critical condition in a UK hospital.

Despite the lack of evidence, the UK Government of Prime Minister Theresa May on March 14, ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the UK, alleging that they were undeclared intelligence officers. They departed the UK, with their families, on March 20.

The Russian Government, in retaliation, on March 17, expelled 23 British diplomats from Moscow, closed the British Council’s cultural offices in Russia, and revoked permission for the UK to open a consulate-general in St. Petersburg. High-level contacts between the UK and Russia were frozen.

These were high-profile, but not necessarily substantive penalties which each government placed on the other. The actions by each government could have been far more serious, especially given the Russian Government’s strenuous rejection of the British (and later Western) allegations and Moscow’s demand for evidence of the British allegations. And it may be that the very visible gestures were designed deliberately to avoid a serious, long-term break between Russia and the UK. Even so, the damage has been considerable.

Following are some of the unaddressed factors:

1. Motivation: What was the Russian Government’s alleged motivation for attempting to kill Skripal? Certainly, he was a former officer of the Soviet (and later Russian) military intelligence service, the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate; since 2010 known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces) who had been found to have been working for the UK Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) during the 1990s and early 2000s. Significantly, he was not — as was the historic custom of the former Soviet Government — executed for treason, but simply imprisoned after he had been arrested in December 2004 by the Federal Security Service (FSB), and then tried and convicted, and sentenced to a mere 13 years in prison. However, he received full amnesty from the Russian Government and was sent to the UK in 2010 in an exchange of intelligence illegals captured by Western (mainly U.S.) agencies. So it must be assumed that the GRU felt that he had nothing of importance which he could disclose to the UK Government that he had not already disclosed in his period as a double. Moreover, he retained his Russian Passport and kept getting consular services while in the UK. His family was permitted to travel and live in Russia. Why, then, eight years later, would Moscow seek to have him killed? That is not to say that Russia was not involved in the attack, but merely, from evidence so far available, there is no ability to build a compelling case against Russia based on definitive physical evidence or on motive.

2. The Methodology of the Attack: The description of the type of attack and the alleged weapon used (a nerve agent within the Novichok family) were raised by the UK Government as prima facie evidence of Russian Government involvement, and the allegation was made by the British Government — again without supporting evidence — that the Russian Government had continued to manufacture and stockpile weaponized Novichok (meaning “newcomer”) family nerve agents in contravention of post-Cold War understandings. Open source literature suggests that five variants of the Novichok family had been developed and weaponized between 1971 and 1993. The UK Government was not specific about which strand of Novichok was allegedly used against Skripal and his daughter (although it was believed to have been the A-232 variety, which could be used in a spray). However, there were numerous official and media allegations that the attack somehow paralleled the very different case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and, before that, the KGB, who had defected to the UK where he received political asylum. He was, on November 1, 2006, hospitalized (and later died) from having received a lethal dose of polonium-210, a chemical derived from a rare and highly radioactive metal. Both the circumstances of Litvinenko’s background (and relationship with the Russian Government), and the methodology and weapons of the attack bear no relationship with the background of Skripal.

3. Access to Nerve Agents: It is important to note that the UK Government throughout its statements on the matter implied that only Russia had access to the Novichok agents, and that they were still in use with the Russian Armed Forces. Those allegations were incorrect as to the spread of knowledge and possession of the agents were concerned, and there is no evidence that the Russian Government retained Novichok in its arsenal (although it would certainly have samples in its archives). The reality was that several Soviet satellite states also were known to have had access to Novichok during the Cold War, and Wikipedia notes: “In 2016 Iranian chemists synthesized six Novichok agents for analysis and produced detailed mass spectral data which was added to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Central Analytical Database.” Moreover, the fact that the UK Government’s chemical and biological warfare agency at Porton Down was able to identify the nerve agent used in the Skripal case as Novichok indicates that Porton Down also has — presumably as with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD), at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and other concerned agencies around the world — attempted to obtain samples of Novichok agents and probably attempted to replicate them in order to discover antidotes. Vil Mirzayanov, one of the developers of Novichok, defected to the U.S. in the early-1990s, revealed the project and delivered all the data, including production techniques, to the U.S. and the UK.

4. A Parallel Case: What has thus far gone unremarked was the fact that the assassination on February 13, 2017, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un (who later died in hospital), directly paralleled the attack on Skripal. It was alleged that Kim was attacked by two women with VX nerve agent. However, VX is gas, and the reality was that Kim Jong-Nam was killed with a Novichok variant: a viscous liquid containing the same nerve-paralyzing molecules as VX. It was assumed at the time that the North Koreans mastered the art of the Novichok’s carrier-molecules but not that of the super-lethal agent. And it was presumed that this was on the instructions of Kim Jong-Un. Sources indicate, however, that Kim Jong-nam was killed by a nerve agent from the Novichok family of weapons, which had been designed specifically to be more powerful and effective than VX (in fact, about five to eight times more powerful than VX, and more difficult to detect). Why has this parallel, which was known to Western intelligence agencies, not raised? Was it not raised because it might throw doubt on the “indisputable logic” of blaming the attack on the Russian Government?

Related: Kim Jong-Nam’s Chinese bodyguards disappeared before his assassination, Feb. 22, 2017

5. Cui Bono (Who Benefits)? The fundamental aspect of any analysis of such an incident must first be to ask who benefits from the action. The automatic media (and therefore political) speculation was that Russia must have wished Skripal dead because he was a traitor. But he had already been arrested by the Russian Government, and tried and convicted for treason, and then let go by the Russian Government. In his “retirement” in south-western England, Skripal had reportedly been given a home and a stipend by the UK Government. He was not “on the run” from the Russian Government, and, indeed, had reportedly on numerous occasions used the services of the Russian Consulate in London. His daughter traveled without hindrance from Moscow to visit him. Given the scope of his treason against Russia — and the lightness of the sentence against him — he had never been a “big fish”, and the length of time since his involvement with the GRU (ie: since 2004) meant that he was no longer in possession of any meaningful information, and certainly nothing which had not already been passed to his British handlers. So if the Russian Government had little interest in Skripal, then who did?

6. The “Steele Dossier”: Again, what is significant is the obvious matter which has not been raised in any of the discussions of the attack on the Skripals: the ongoing links between Sergei Skripal and SIS/MI6. It is worth bearing in mind that Skripal’s period as a double agent for MI6 overlapped the period when now-former MI6 officer Christopher David Steele worked under diplomatic cover in the British Embassy in Moscow (1990-93) and as head of the Russia Desk at MI6 between 2006 and 2009. A number of sources have indicated a series of ongoing links between Steele and Skripal, and certainly, as head of the Russia Desk, Steele would have overseen aspects of Skripal’s handling in retirement in the UK. Furthermore, Skripal was known to have undertaken freelance work “in retirement”, preparing reports on Russia. He was well known to be an “author for hire” for anyone seeking a supposedly authoritative assessment on Russia or on Russian intelligence issues. He was, in short, the “Russian intelligence source” for the Steele Dossier compiled for the election campaign of Hillary Clinton on then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump. This Service raised the issue of the witting compliance of SIS/MI6, or its tacit support of, the activities of Christopher Steele — by this time retired from SIS, and working from his corporate base, Orbis Business Intelligence, Ltd. — in preparing what was clearly a document designed for political warfare use against a U.S. presidential candidate. Moreover, this was not an isolated example: the British Government had approved activities by its Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in undertaking clandestine electronic monitoring of U.S. domestic communications on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) during the Barack Obama Presidency. The UK Government was, therefore, complicit with the Obama/Democratic Party attempts, with candidate Hillary Clinton, in political activities which were questionable, if not illegal under U.S. and UK law. Again, this begs the question: Cui bono? Certainly, far more than the Russian Government, several individuals or entities had a stake in ensuring that Skripal did not divulge his role in the now-discredited Steele Dossier.

Related: Was the FBI’s hiring of Christopher Steele authorized by British intelligence or was it not?, Feb. 11, 2018

What seems clear is that the “rush to judgment” against the Russian Government seemed necessary to many parties because there were too many unpleasant realities — many of which had immediate political and legal consequences — to be faced by (a) the U.S. Democratic National Committee (DNC); (b) the Clinton campaign; (c) former U.S. President Barack Obama; (d) SIS/MI6 and Christopher Steele; and (e) the UK Government (which may have felt that it had no other alternative but to pay a price to sweep the actions of recent years under the carpet). Moreover, the whole nature of the attempt to stop Skripal from talking to the media (and this was apparently being mooted, according to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs sources) was designed in such a way that the immediate “suspect” would be Moscow.

Moreover, the subsequent anti-Trump “scandal”, suggesting that the UK firm, Cambridge Analytica, and the U.S. search engine company, Google, were engaged in questionable activity to support the election of Donald Trump in 2016, was clearly timed to erupt as part of the ongoing distraction from serious discussion on DNC/Hillary Clinton “dirty tricks” during the election campaign. Perhaps equally significantly, the entire process of rolling scandals in the U.S. has been to divert attention to the fact that the Clinton Foundation had served as a major focus of corruption within Washington, DC, for many years, and that the election of President Donald Trump could serve to expose and unravel that.

The biggest victim, however, of the ongoing “Trump-Russia” political circus in the U.S. — and with British  and Australian ramifications — has been the destruction of the West’s relationship with Russia. That will have long-term negative consequences for the West, and positive strategic benefits for the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

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