Cups of tea and bottles of water

The Navalny poisoning story keeps getting odder. After the Russian oppositionist fell ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters claimed that he was likely poisoned by a cup of tea he consumed at Tomsk airport. Now we’re told that the poison was in a bottle of water he drank in his hotel in the same town. Alexei Navalny’s team have released a video showing them packaging up materials from Navalny’s hotel room including a couple of water bottles. This, we must suppose, is meant to corroborate the bottle poisoning thesis.

Personally, I have no reason to doubt that a German laboratory found, as it claimed, a chemical of the Novichok-type in the bottle in question. The identification of the nerve agent in (or on, it’s not entirely clear which) the bottle then allowed the Germans to confirm the type of ‘cholinesterase inhibitor’ in Navalny’s blood. This may explain why Russian doctors were not able to confirm the presence of poison – they didn’t have a sample to compare the blood with. Beyond that, though, the latest twist in the Navalny story leaves one with a lot of questions.

The cup of tea scenario never made a lot of sense. To poison Navalny that way would have meant a) knowing in advance that he was going to have a cup of tea in the airport; b) knowing at which café his colleague would buy it; c) knowing who that colleague would be and telling the poisoner, so that s/he gave the right cup to the right person; d) somehow obtaining the cooperation of whoever would be serving tea at that time and in that place; and e) somehow getting them to lace Navalny’s tea with Novichok while not contaminating anybody else’s food or drink or poisoning themselves. Clearly, this didn’t make a lot of sense from a practical point of view.

The problem with the bottle of water scenario is that it isn’t more obviously practical. Unless this was an inside job, and the bottle was laced by one of Navalny’s entourage, one has to wonder how a would-be poisoner would know that Navalny would drink from that particular bottle of water in that particular room.

If it was one of those complimentary bottles one finds in hotel rooms, one can see how it could be done – the poisoner sneaks in the room, replaces one of the complimentary bottles with a pre-poisoned one, and sneaks out. But how did s/he know which room Navalny would be staying in? (I understand that his staff never book under his name – so even if you can identify rooms booked by the staff, you wouldn’t know which one was Navalny’s, not another member of the team’s). And how did the poisoner know that Navalny, and not somebody else, would drink from that specific bottle? There may be good answers to these questions, but they’re not immediately obvious.

Then, of course, there are the issues of how the bottle got packed and transported to Germany without infecting anybody else, and why it apparently took hours for the poison to have its effect. Again, there may be good answers, but as yet they aren’t clear.

Planting a poisoned water bottle in a target’s room could indeed work as a method of murder, but it’s fraught with risks of failure – the target just doesn’t drink any water; someone else drinks from the bottle; and so on. If you want to kill somebody, you can imagine a simpler, and far more certain, way of going about it.

But at this point, we don’t even know that the water bottle was one provided by the hotel. What if it was one Navalny and his staff bought elsewhere? If that’s the case, how on earth was the poison delivered into the bottle? I can’t say that I can see how.

In short, it’s not impossible that Navalny was indeed poisoned this way, but it’s difficult to work out the exact dynamics of it, and it’s a scenario which begs a lot of questions.

So, how do we get answers?

First, the German government needs to be a lot more forthcoming with information. At present, it’s refusing to tell the Russians anything. It’s position seems to be that the Russian authorities are guilty of the crime, and therefore can’t be trusted with the evidence and should just confess. Obviously, this isn’t a very good way of getting the Russians to cooperate.

Second, the Russian government needs to show a much greater enthusiasm in investigating (at present, the authorities have just carried out what they call a ‘pre-investigation’, which appears to be less than thorough). The authorities’ attitude seems to be that the whole story is a plot to frame them and so it’s best to pretend that no crime was committed at all. Equally obviously, this isn’t a very good way of convincing outsiders of their innocence.

As I said before, the Russians need to take this rather more seriously. Everyone involved– Navalny’s team, hotel staff, etc. – needs to be interviewed; the bottle’s origin traced; the room and hotel swabbed and analyzed; the exact chemical composition of the poison publicly identified. And so on.

This requires both the Germans and the Russians to stop treating this as a political football and instead work together to find answers. This, of course, is almost certainly not going to happen. As a result, attitudes on both sides of the political divide are likely to harden. In the West, nearly everyone will take it as granted that an attempt was made to murder Navalny using a Novichok-laced water bottle. And in Russia, nearly everybody will point to the problems with the water bottle thesis and conclude that the story is total hokum.

As for me, I don’t know what to make of it. But what’s for sure is that the episode is yet another nail in the coffin of Russian-Western relations. Somehow or other, it all keeps getting worse.

Election reporting

Leaders of Russia’s ruling United Russia party were in a good mood on Sunday night as the results of the country’s local elections streamed in. ‘You have received the votes of the people, who trust you’, party chairman (and former Prime Minister and President) Dmitry Medvedev told candidates. ‘All our [gubernatorial] candidates … will win in the first round … and likewise in the regional and municipal parliaments United Russia will form a majority in every region without exception’, added party general secretary Andrei Turchak.

Turchak wasn’t exactly right about the results, but not far off. United Russia has reason to be happy. Its candidates for governor were elected with thumping majorities, even in Irkutsk, where it had been predicted it might lose. And in city and regional elections, the party was consistently top, generally getting around 45% of the vote, some 30% or so above its nearest competitors, the Communists and LDPR.

And yet, that’s not what you’d think if you went by the stories in the Western media today, which focused almost entirely on miniscule gains by supporters of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. ‘Russia opposition makes gains in local elections,’ ran the headline on the BBC website. ‘Navalny allies win council seats as Putin’s party claims victory’, said that in the Guardian. ‘Alexei Navalny’s allies claim council wins in Russia local elections’, shouts Deutsche Welle. And so on. You’d imagine that the elections were indicators of some significant shift in the political tide.

So what were these great gains? Navalny-backed candidates won 2 seats in the city of Tomsk, and 5 in Novosibirsk. That’s it. A grand total of 7 council seats. To be fair, it’s 7 more than they’ve ever had before, and so in that respect, it’s progress. But it’s hardly a significant result in the grander scheme of things. Across the country, United Russia governors were being elected with shares of the vote of 70 or so percent. Is ‘Opposition makes gains’ really the appropriate way of reporting the results? Methinks not, but it’s an interesting insight into the mentality of the Western press corps.

Proof of collusion at last!

Despite the secondary roles played some bit part actors in the Russiagate drama, the central figure in allegations that Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government to be elected as president of the United States has always been Trumps’ onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort. The recent US Senate report on Russian ‘interference’ in the 2016 presidential election thus started off its analysis with a long exposé of Manafort’s comings and goings.

Simply put, the thesis is as follows: while working in Ukraine as an advisor to ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, Manafort was in effect working on behalf of the Russian state via ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian oligarchs as well as Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska (a man with ‘close ties’ to the Kremlin). Also suspicious was Manafort’s close relationship with one Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the US Senate claims is a Russia intelligence agent. All these connections meant that while in Ukraine, Manafort was helping the Russian Federation spread its malign influence. On returning to the USA and joining the Trump campaign, he then continued to fulfill the same role.

The fundamental flaw in this thesis has always been the well-known fact that while advising Yanukovich, Manafort took anything but a ‘pro-Russian’ position, but instead pressed him to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). Since gaining independence, Ukraine had avoided being sucked either into the Western or the Russian camp. But the rise of two competing geopolitical projects – the EU and the Russia-backed Eurasian Union – was making this stance increasingly impossible, and Ukraine was being put in a position where it would be forced to choose. This was because the two Unions are incompatible – one can’t be in two customs unions simultaneously, when they levy different tariffs and have different rules. Association with the EU meant an end to the prospect of Ukraine joining the Eurasian Union. It was therefore a goal which was entirely incompatible with Russian interests, which required that Ukraine turn instead towards Eurasia.

Manafort’s position on this matter therefore worked against Russia. Even The Guardian journalist Luke Harding had to concede this in his book Collusion, citing a former Ukrainian official Oleg Voloshin that, ‘Manafort was an advocate for US interests. So much so that the joke inside [Yanunkovich’s] Party of Regions was that he actually worked for the USA.’

If anyone had any doubts about this, they can now put them aside. On Monday, the news agency BNE Intellinews announced that it had received a leak of hundreds of Kilimnik’s emails detailing his relationship with Manafort and Yanukovich. The story they tell is not at all what the US Senate and other proponents of the Trump-Russia collusion fantasy would have you believe. As BNE reports:

Today the Yanukovych narrative is that he was a stool pigeon for Russian President Vladimir Putin from the start, but after winning the presidency he actually worked very hard to take Ukraine into the European family. As bne IntelliNews  has already reported, Manafort’s flight records also show how he crisscrossed Europe in an effort to build support in Brussels for Yanukovych in the run up to the EU Vilnius summit. …

On March 1, his first foreign trip as newly minted president was to the EU capital of Brussels. … The leaked emails show that Manafort influenced Yanukovych’s decision to visit Brussels as first stop, working in concert with his assistant Konstantin Kilimnik … In a memorandum entitled ‘Purpose of President Yanukovych Trip to Brussels,’ Manafort argued that the decision to visit Brussels first would underscore Yanukovych’s mission to “bring European values to Ukraine,” and kick start negotiations on the Association Agreement.

The memorandum on the Brussels visit was the first of many from Manafort and Kilimnik to Yanukovych, in which they pushed Yanukovych to signal a clear pro-EU line and to carry out reforms to back this up. …

To handle Yanukovych’s off-message antics, Manafort and Kilimnik created a back channel to Yanukovych for Western politicians – in particular those known to appreciate Ukraine’s geopolitical significance vis-à-vis Russia. In Europe, these were Sweden’s then foreign minister Carl Bildt, Poland’s then foreign minister Radosław Sikorski and European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule, and in the US, Vice President Joe Biden.

“We need to launch a ‘Friends of Ukraine’ programme to help us use informal channels in talks on the free trade zone and modernisation of the gas transport system,” Manafort and Kilimnik wrote to Yanukovych in September 2010. “Carl Bildt is the foundation of this informal group and has sufficient weight with his colleagues in questions connected to Ukraine and the Eastern Partnership. (…) but he needs to be able to say that he has a direct channel to the President, and he knows that President Yanukovych remains committed to European integration.”

Beyond this, the emails show that Manafort and Kilimnik also tried hard to arrange a meeting between Yanukovich and US President Barack Obama, and urged Yanukovich to show leniency to former Prime Minister Yuliia Timoshenko (who was imprisoned for fraud).

It is noticeable that the members of the ‘back channel’ Manafort and Kilimnik created to lobby on behalf of Ukraine in the EU included some of the most notably Russophobic European politicians of the time, such as Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski. Moreover, nowhere in any of what they did can you find anything that could remotely be described as ‘pro-Russian’. Indeed, the opposite is true. As previously noted, Ukraine’s bid for an EU agreement directly challenged a key Russian interest – the expansion of the Eurasian Union to include Ukraine. Manafort and Kilimnik were therefore very much working against Russia, not for it.

The idea, therefore, that Paul Manafort was an agent of influence for the Russian government flies against everything we know about what he actually did. As for Kilimnik, maybe he is a Russian intelligence agent – I’m not in a position to say. But if he is, he’s a very weird one, who spent years actively pushing the Ukrainian government to pursue a policy which directly contradicted Russian interests.

None of this, needless to say, appears in the US Senate report. Instead, the report chooses to focus on the apparently shocking revelation that Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik, as if this sharing of private information was in some ways a massive threat to national security and proof that Manafort was working for the Russians. The fact that both Manafort and Kilimnik spent years doing their damnedest to undermine Russia is simply ignored. Go figure!

Harassment

Media bias can be rather annoying. But on occasion, it can also be inadvertently amusing. And so it was that I had a little chuckle at an article in yesterday’s Independent, which described a clash between American and Russian troops in Syria. For this is what the Indy had to say:

A series of videos posted to Twitter on Wednesday appears to show several Russian patrol vehicles harassing US vehicles that had attempted to block their path.

Ho, ho, ho.  The Independent’s reporter Griffin Connolly is obviously so wrapped up in the narrative that the Russians are the bad guys that he can’t see the irony in what he wrote – the Russian harassed the Americans, when the latter ‘attempted to block their path’. Can’t you see the problem here, Griffin, old boy? The Americans started this by trying to block the Russians. So, who really was harassing who here?

Obviously, Connolly doesn’t get it. For a little later on, he adds the following:

The drawdown by roughly half of the US peace-keeping forces in the region created a vacuum that Russia and Turkey have sought to fill, observers have said. This week’s harassment of US vehicles by Russian troops is one of a handful of recent escalations by Moscow to try to strong-arm the US out of the Syria — and the Middle East more broadly.

Note not merely the repetition of the term ‘harassment’ as if it were a given fact, but also the casual reference to the allegedly terrible consequences of a US withdrawal from Syria, justified in turn by the citing of ‘observers’, whose identities are not revealed. As for what these ‘recent escalations’ are, and what evidence there is that Russia is trying ‘to strong  arm the US out of the Syria [sic]’, we are not told. It is taken for granted that Russia is a malign actor that it is to blame for any clashes with the Americans, and that the American presence in Syria is a good thing whose  ending could only bring negative results. As a propaganda piece for US imperialism it does a very good job.

Of course, what it doesn’t tell us is what these American troops are doing in Syria now that ISIS has been largely defeated. (‘We left troops behind only for the oil’, said Donald Trump.) Nor does the article tell us that the American troops are occupying another country’s territory without the consent of that country’s government, unlike the Russians who at least have the pretext of an official invitation. But it does wrap up with this little gem of information:

Earlier this summer, reports emerged that Donald Trump had received a written intelligence briefing containing allegations that Russia was paying bounties to Taliban-linked fighters in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. The White House denied Mr Trump had ever been briefed on that intelligence report, even though the New York Times reported it was included in his daily written brief of national security intelligence matters in February. The last time he was asked about it by reporters, the president said he had not brought up the alleged bounty programme in his calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For whatever reason, Mr Connolly makes no effort to inform readers of the disputed, and decidedly dubious, nature of the claim about Afghanistan. Likewise, he doesn’t bother to explain why the hell he has included this completely irrelevant material about Afghanistan in a story about Russian and American troops playing bumper cars in Syria. I can only imagine it’s because it meant to discredit a) the Russians, and b) Donald Trump. Whatever this article is, straightforward objective news reporting it ain’t.

The funny thing is that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s connections with The Independent’s owner Evgeny Lebedev is often used as a reason to claim that Boris is somehow in the pocket of the Russian state. Obviously, anyone making such a claim has never bothered reading Lebedev’s newspaper.

No Good Options for Russia in Navalny Case

‘Troubles come in threes’, goes the saying. Still struggling with the coronavirus, Russia’s leaders have this past week also been troubled by the protests in Belarus and the potential loss of a key ally. And now they face a third, and in some ways politically far more troublesome, problem – the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny.

From the moment that Navalny fell ill on a plane travelling from the Siberian city of Tomsk, his supporters have accused the Kremlin of poisoning him and then endeavoring to cover up its crime by falsifying his medical diagnosis and delaying his transfer to Germany for treatment.

Western leaders are demanding that the Russian government institute a full and independent investigation into the apparent attempt on Navalny’s life. For instance, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said that, ‘It is imperative that the Russian authorities initiate an independent and transparent investigation into the poisoning of Navalny without delay.’

On Monday, the Kremlin rejected this demand. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that accusations that President Putin had personally ordered Navalny’s poisoning were ‘idle talk’. He quibbled that Navalny’s German doctors had not identified a poison in his body, merely an ‘effect’ – ‘lowered cholinesterase’ – which the Russian doctors had themselves discovered ‘in the first hours.’ If the Germans succeed in identifying a poison, said Peskov, ‘then, of course, this will be cause for an investigation’. Otherwise, no investigation was called for.

The Kremlin’s problem here is that in the eyes of the Western media, Western politicians, and no doubt the vast bulk of the population of most Western countries, it has no credibility on such matters at all. Previous cases, especially the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, have strongly entrenched the idea that Moscow is in the habit of murdering its political opponents. The attempts by the Kremlin and Russian media to deflect blame for the Skripal poisoning (as also with the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine) have also reinforced the impression that nothing the Russians say can be trusted. Faced with two diagnoses – one by Russian doctors saying that there was no poisoning, and one by German doctors saying that there was – the overwhelming majority of people in the Western world are going to favour the latter.

This has important geopolitical consequences. Perceptions of how regimes and individual leaders behave on the domestic scene impact perceptions of how they are likely to behave internationally. A state which habitually murders its own citizens, and then lies about it, is a state which cannot be trusted. Commenting on the Navalny case, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul commented that, ‘Putin is evil’. In the face of the announcement by the German doctors, this type of rhetoric is likely to find an ever more receptive audience.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that what has happened to Aleksei Navalny is very bad news indeed for Russia’s international reputation, and is yet another nail in the coffin of East-West relations. The question then arises of whether there is anything that Moscow can do to mitigate the damage.

Unfortunately for the Kremlin, it has few good options. Even if poisoning isn’t proven, doubts will remain. And if poisoning were to be established, and the Russian authorities were to carry out a thorough investigation which identified some culprits, and arrested and convicted them, it’s unlikely that critics would be satisfied. As with previous cases, such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, sceptics would probably claim that those convicted were fall guys set up to hide the true guilty parties lurking deep in the corridors of power.

That said, failure to act would be even worse. Efforts to dismiss allegations against the Russian government by pointing out that that it has nothing to gain by killing Navalny, or by claiming that others were responsible, will simply lead to charges that Russia is engaging in propaganda and disinformation.

In these circumstances, the most sensible thing that those in power in Russia can do is treat the Navalny incident as a case of suspected attempted murder and do what foreign leaders are demanding – i.e. carry out a thorough and transparent investigation, ideally with the participation of an outside party. Only in this way can they hope to deflect the huge wave of criticism that is coming their way. Anything less will be treated as an admission of guilt.

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