You all surely know the story. Sergei Skripal, a one time officer in the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, was recruited by the British intelligence service MI6, and worked for a while as a British spy before being caught by the Russian authorities and imprisoned. He was then released as part of a spy swap and went to live incognito in Salisbury, England, where he carried on his life peacefully until one day a couple of GRU officers, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, travelling under the pseudonyms Petrov and Boshirov, flew to the UK and smeared a nerve agent known as Novichok on the door handle of his house. The poisoning almost killed Skripal and his daughter, Julia, but both eventually survived. Also poisoned was a police officer Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who entered the Skripals’ house to investigate. He too survived. Less lucky was another resident of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, whose boyfriend Charlie Rowley gave her a perfume bottle he found somewhere in town. The bottle contained the Novichok used by Petrov and Boshirov to poison Skripal. Sturgess died after spraying herself with its contents.
That’s the official narrative, which most people accept. John Helmer, though, doesn’t believe it. Ever since the original poisoning he’s been penning pieces on his blog, Dances with Bears, casting doubt on the story being provided by the British police and government. Now he has assembled his pieces into a book entitled Skripal in Prison, which lays out the case against the theory that the Russians were behind the Skripal poisoning.
Helmer’s technique is to latch onto apparent contradictions in the statements of public officials, expose gaps in knowledge about the case, and portray things which most observers might consider quite innocuous as deeply suspicious, all to give a sense that things aren’t quite what they seem to be. For instance, he asks why it was necessary to knock down the roof of the Skripals’ house, and then the entire building, if the Novichok was just on the door handle. It must mean that the poison was really in the house, not outside on the door, he conjectures. And that must mean that Skripal was playing around with Novichok inside his home, and poisoned himself. Of course, it could just be that the British authorities were playing safe, and that they realized that nobody would ever want to buy the house and that it would have to be demolished. But Helmer doesn’t consider alternative possibilities. An apparent contradiction in one detail is taken as evidence that the entire narrative must be false, after which an entirely new narrative is constructed based entirely on conjecture. Suffice it to say that I don’t find this method of argument very convincing.
Now it’s true that there are some things about the Skripal story which remained unexplained. If the Skripals came into contact with the nerve agent when they touched the door on leaving the house, it’s not clear why it took several hours for them to display symptoms of poisoning. It’s also unknown how Sergeant Bailey was infected, or where Charlie Rowley found the bottle, or what happened to the bottle in the weeks between the poisoning of the Skripals and Rowley picking it up. But in a case like this there are bound to be gaps in knowledge. As things stand, one might find it difficult to convict Petrov and Boshirov in a court of law, where the standard is guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t make a judgement outside of the court that they are fairly likely guilty of the crime.
Helmer, though, has a different take on events. This is what he thinks happened, as written on page 208 of the book:
Sergei Skripal poisoned himself by accident on March 4, 2018, in the centre of Salisbury. At the time he was engaged in an operation, freelance or official, which was known to the British intelligence agency MI6. The two Russians, Anatoly Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who visited Salisbury on March 3 and during Skripal’s fateful afternoon, were a signal from the Russian military intelligence agency GRU that the Russians knew in advance what Skripal was doing, and wanted the British to know they knew. The two Russians never made it to the front door of the Skripal house in Salisbury; the door handle wasn’t poisoned, there was no contact between Skripal, Chepiga, Mishkin. Their affair had nothing to do with the subsequent death of Dawn Sturgess.
To which I can only say ‘phooey’. Helmer produces not a jot of evidence to support any of these claims. It’s pure speculation. What Helmer does do is cited Occam’s Razor, the famous principle that the simplest explanation of any problem is the most likely one. But if an ex-GRU agent is poisoned on the same day that a couple of current GRU agents turn up in his town and are spotted just a few minutes walk from his house, isn’t the simplest explanation that they were the ones who poisoned him? Indeed, it’s noticeable that Helmer doesn’t contest the identification of Petrov and Boshirov as GRU officers Chepiga and Mishkin. What the hell were they doing in Salisbury two days in a row? Warning Skripal, as Helmer claims?? What sort of logic is that? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
I write a lot about the crazy nonsense churned out by Western writers about Russia, but there’s a danger in thinking that because so many of the accusations made against Russia are false, they all are. The Russian state is not all sweetness and light. Helmer knows this very well, and often writes about the corrupt nexus of state and business in Russia. On the back of his book he proudly prints a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry saying, ‘Helmer writes bad things about our country.’ I find it odd, therefore, that he’s so keen to let the Russians off the hook for the Skripal poisoning. Some may be persuaded by his logic. I am not.