Tag Archives: Sergei Skripal

Assumptions

Assumptions are extremely important. If they’re wrong, everything which follows is probably wrong too. So when analysts don’t make their assumptions clear to policy makers, but instead try to pass them off as facts, there’s a great danger that poor decisions will result.

What brings this to mind is a new report by Duncan Allan, published by Chatham House and entitled Managed Confrontation: UK Policy Towards Russia After the Salisbury Attack. The report claims that,

The nerve agent attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury … was a UK policy failure. Following the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006, the UK government failed to deter another life threatening attack … Russian decision makers saw the UK as lacking purpose and resolve because its firm rhetoric was not matched by its actions.

Although the British government has acted more robustly after the attempted murder of the Skripals, Mr Duncan thinks that the response is still not tough enough and ‘there is a danger that the UK’s actions are again perceived to be out of line with its rhetoric and will thus prove ineffective as a deterrent.’ Duncan urges the government to resort to ‘deterrence by punishment’ by making it clear to Russia that in the face of future attacks it will use the 2018 Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act against Russia to ‘exact a direct cost by sanctioning members of Russia’s elite and their interests’ According to Duncan there is a ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. By pressuring the latter, Britain can dissuade the former from misbehaving. This will inevitably harm the British financial sector, which does considerable business with rich Russians, but ‘the state’s duty to ensure the security of its citizens surely comes before the interests of a branch of the economy.’ For too long, Duncan claims, Britain has tried to have the best of both worlds – speaking out against Russia while continuing to do business with it. Consequently, Britain has signalled weakness, and so encouraged Russian attacks. ’ Up to now, says Duncan, Britain has ‘lacked credibility’. This needs to change.

What are the assumptions here? First, that Russia considers Britain weak. And second, that this perception encouraged the Russian state to poison Sergey Skripal. Allan Duncan portrays these as facts. They are not. He provides no evidence for either the one or the other. They are assumptions. So too is the idea which lies behind this report that there is such a thing as ‘credibility’ – one’s reputation for being willing to take robust action – and that the possession of ‘credibility’ deters hostile acts. Finally, Mr Duncan’s argument rests on an assumption that ‘deterrence by punishment’ actually works, which in turn rests on assumptions that a) Russians will correctly interpret the signals that Britain is trying to send, and b) Russian elites will respond to British pressure by successfully pressuring their own government, and c) the Russian government will respond to that pressure in the manner desired by the British. All these assumptions may, of course, be true. But as no evidence is produced to say whether they are indeed correct, one must conclude that they might equally be wrong. Consequently, the policy recommendations are without value.

Let’s take a closer look. Was the attack on Sergey Skripal a product of Russian perceptions of British lack of credibility? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. To say one way or the other, one would have to know what was going on in the brain of whoever ordered the operation. Since we don’t actually have any information about that, Mr Duncan’s claim cannot be treated as a serious basis for a major policy decision. Furthermore, as I have pointed out before in this blog, historical and political science research suggests that ‘credibility’ is a greatly overestimated virtue. Such evidence as we have about the way politicians come to their decisions suggests that considerations of whether a foreign state is likely to respond to a given action are rarely based on perceptions of how that state and its leaders have responded in the past, and whether they are credible, strong, determined actors, but rather on considerations of whether they are capable of responding and of whether the matter in question is of sufficient interest for them to be likely to want to respond. In short, when people worry about their credibility, they do so for no good reason. This undermines the entire logic of Mr Duncan’s report.

As I have also often said, misperceptions play an extremely important role in international conflicts. A lot of international relations is about sending signals to other states. The problem is that the message received is very often not at all what the person sending the signal assumed would be received. Mr Duncan assumes that punishment will be understood by Russian leaders as being punishment. That’s a very unwise assumption in my opinion. In the current political climate, in which Russians see themselves as the aggrieved party, I doubt that they will interpret being sanctioned by Britain as being punished for their own misdeeds and therefore feel deterred from further such misdeeds in the future. It’s just as possible that they will see this as further proof that the Brits are out to get them come what may and that there is absolutely no point in modifying their behaviour in the way the Brits desire, because they won’t get anything in return. Whether they’re right or wrong to feel that way is neither here nor there. If that’s how they feel then Mr Duncan’s proposal isn’t going to have the desired effect. It might even backfire and encourage even more hostile behaviour.

And then there’s the matter of the ‘symbiotic relationship between Russia’s state and business sectors’. Is this actually a thing? Duncan assumes a) that the business sector has a powerful influence over the Russian state and b) that business will pressure the state into changing its behaviour if financial interests overseas are threatened. Yet, the business sector in Russia is rather separate from the security organs whom the British consider responsible for the Skripal poisoning. Do rich Russians with accounts in the UK really have a say in what the GRU does? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the example of anti-Russian sanctions to date provides no evidence in support of assumption b) above. On the contrary, as Richard Connolly has shown, the way the state-business relationship works in Russia is that when the business elite is hurt by sanctions, the state comes to its rescue and redirects resources so that business’s losses are covered. This might harm the economy as a whole, but it protects the targeted sectors. At the same time, it increases those sectors’ dependence on the state, making them less and less capable of pressuring the state to alter its political direction. The idea that ‘punishment’ of Russian businessmen results in changes in the behaviour of the Russian state is most definitely unproven, and may in fact be entirely false.

Obviously, if another attack on British soil were to be attributed to the Russian state, it would be politically impossible for the British government not to react, and I’m certainly not saying that it would be wrong to do so. But one shouldn’t imagine that punishing Russian businessmen for the alleged sins of their state will somehow prevent such an attack by enhancing British ‘credibility’. Allan Duncan calls for ‘managed confrontation’ with Russia. But by focusing on confrontation rather than on finding ways to eliminate conflict, there is a danger that his proposals will simply drive an ever bigger wedge between East and West. In this way, rather than enhancing British security, Duncan’s approach may serve merely to undermine it.

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Peddling certainty

Some of you may remember the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ produced by the British government prior to the invasion of Iraq. This laid out the government’s evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I gave it a read at the time. It was most unconvincing, consisting of numerous statements along the lines that ‘Iraq could have this’, ‘It might have that’, and so on. The Executive Summary, by contrast, was very different. All the caveats had disappeared, to be replaced by an almost 100% certainty that Iraq was knee deep in deadly weapons. The next day when the media reported the dossier, they just reported the Executive Summary. The ‘coulds’, ‘mights’ and ‘possiblys’ in the main text were nowhere to be seen. I knew then that something fishy was going on.

My career in military intelligence was relatively short, but one thing I learnt from it is that intelligence analysts tend towards caution in their assessments. They don’t want to be proven wrong, and so lace their reports with words like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’. This is especially true when providing analysis rather than reporting pure data. Whenever you read something which claims 100% certainty, you should be immediately suspicious.

As regular readers will know, I am of the opinion that there are good reasons to suspect Russian involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yuliia Skripal in Salisbury. The behaviour of the alleged poisoners, Petrov and Boshirov, was, to say the least, odd, and their interview on RT utterly unconvincing. Which is where we come on to the organization Bellingcat, which claims to have identified Boshirov’s real identity.

The first thing to say about Bellingcat’s research is that it is ingenious. Unfortunately, their claims about Petrov’s and Boshirov’s passport applications are unverifiable, as we don’t have access to the originals, and so can’t check want Bellingcat is saying. Still, it’s undoubtedly interesting. Likewise, the organization’s latest investigation, which claims to identify Boshirov as a colonel in the GRU, named Chepiga, deserves to be added to the file as something worth further investigation. I absolutely don’t dismiss this stuff out of hand.

But there’s something which annoys me about Bellingcat nonetheless. It’s the certainty with which it makes its claims, and then the certainty with which those claims are reported by the press. The intitial Bellingcat report on Petrov’s and Boshirov’s alleged passport application stated that the organization’s investigation,

Has confirmed through uncovered passport data that the two Russian nationals identified by UK authorities as prime suspects in the Novichok poisonings on British soil are linked to Russian security services.

Note the word ‘confirmed’. This is incorrect. What the investigation does is provide information to suggest a link between the suspects and Russian intelligence. It doesn’t prove it. If you find the evidence convincing, I’d allow you to say ‘probable’, or to put in some sentence like ‘we assess with a high degree of confidence that,’ or whatever. If you did that, then you’d be writing like a proper intelligence analyst, pointing out to the reader that this is an assessment not a fact, and that there is some uncertainty. But Bellingcat doesn’t do that. It’s ‘confirmed.’

The second Bellingcat report on the subject makes the same error, beginning with the headline ‘Skripal Suspects Confirmed as GRU Operatives’. Note again the word ‘confirmed’ – no doubt there at all. The same happens again with Bellingcat’s latest. This starts with the headline ‘Skripal Suspect Boshirov Identified as GRU Colonel Anatoly Chepiga.’ In this case, the word ‘identified’ is categorical. Bellingcat is claiming that this is definitely true, not raising the possibility that it might be so. As the article which follows says,

Bellingcat and its investigative partner The Insider – Russia have established conclusively the identity of one of the suspects in the poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal. … Bellingcat was able to conclude with certainty that the person identified by UK authorities as ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Vladimirovich Chepiga.

But have they established this ‘conclusively’? What they’ve actually done is tracked down a Russian military officer, Colonel Chepiga, and provided some evidence to suggest that he might be in the GRU. They’ve then provided some photos to show that Boshirov looks a bit like Chepiga. But that is absolutely not ‘conclusive’ proof that Boshirov is Chepiga. Again, Bellingcat  is making categorical claims that its evidence doesn’t support. Boshirov may indeed be Chepiga – I don’t rule that out – but it is wrong to say, as Bellingcat does, that on the basis of its evidence one can ‘conclude with certainty’ that the two are the same.

This is especially true as Bellingcat  made no forensic effort to compare the photos of Boshirov and Chepiga. I’m no fan of Craig Murray, who it seems to me has popped far too many red pills but, as you can read here, he at least bothered to run some facial recognition software, and got results which suggest that the two aren’t the same guys at all. I’m not at all qualified to comment on forensic matters. Perhaps further investigation will reveal that the two faces are in fact identical. Or maybe they won’t. I merely raise the issue to say that if you want to make the sort of identification Bellingcat makes you have to do a bit more work before coming out with statements about concluding ‘with certainty’. It’s dishonest reporting.

And it matters. The reason it matters is that the press doesn’t tend to go for nuance. If you make claims of certainty, the press will run with them and repeat them as if they are true. And this is what we saw in the British press following the Bellingcat story:

bellingcat

Observe how all these headlines treat Bellingcat’s claim as proven fact. Now, perhaps further investigation will prove Bellingcat to have been right. I consider it perfectly possible. But as a former intelligence officer, the claims to absolute certainty bug me. Proper reporting requires analysts to make the reader aware of all the underlying assumptions and uncertainties, as well as the additional information which is required to confirm the hypothesis being advanced. Bellingcat doesn’t do any of that. It peddles certainties. And that sort of thing has gotten us into all sorts of trouble in the past. Reader beware.

 

Novichok suspects

With good reason, the news that the British police have identified two suspects in the Salisbury novichok poisoning case confirms what most people already thought – that those responsible came from Russia. The claims that the alleged perpetrators were agents of the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, and that the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was ordered by somebody at a high level outside the GRU remain unproven. Nevertheless, the latest news puts the Russian government in an awkward position and places a serious burden of responsibility on it to take action against the alleged assassins.

The British police have said that the names of the two assassins – Aleksandr Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – are likely aliases, and have appealed for help in discovering their true identities. The British government, meanwhile, has said that the two are GRU agents. This is somewhat problematic. How can the British know that the pair work for the GRU if they don’t actually know who they are??

petrov_boshirov
‘Aleksandr Petrov’ and ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ in Salisbury.

Also problematic was a statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said today that:

The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

This may well be true, but it is an assumption not a fact, and personally I tend not to assume too much discipline on the part of Russians. As yet, the Russian state must remain a prime suspect in the affair, but the case against it cannot be considered closed.

Still, if it is true, as reported, that traces of novichok were found in the two men’s hotel room, it is next to impossible to deny that they were indeed the people responsible for the attack (while also raising some interesting questions about how they failed to poison themselves, and so on). Given this, we can say with some certitude that the assassins travelled to the UK from Russia on Russian passports. That places a serious burden of responsibility on the Russian government to do something to address what was a serious crime. If the two weren’t GRU agents, as the Russians insist, then the only way for the Russian authorities to clear their own name is to help the British identify Petrov and Borishov and then take action against them. Failure to do so will inevitably be interpreted as an admission of guilt.

England v. Russia

O-o-o, England’s going to Russia!

O-o-o, Drinking all your vodka!

O-o-o, England’s going all the way!

When I was watching Belgium B play England B in Kaliningrad last week, the English fans were happily singing about drinking Russian vodka, but there was also a particularly loud Russian guy in front of me who was cheering the Belgians along, while occasionally throwing in chants of ‘Rossiya’ and ‘Baltika’ (the local team). Every now and again, as part of his abuse of the English, he would add in a reference to the ‘Skripals’, that is to say Sergei and Yulia Skripal, who were notoriously poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury. Quite what the Skripals had to do with football was beyond me, but it was clear that the Russian guy thought that their story was proof of ‘perfidious Albion’ and thus reason enough to support Belgium. In short, he obviously wasn’t buying the story that the Skripals were poisoned by the Russian secret services.

I doubt that he’s any more likely to think that way following the revelation of a new Novichok poisoning, this time in Amesbury, not far from Salisbury. The affected couple have no connection to Russia, and the speculation is that they came into contact with some residue of the nerve agent left behind after the original attack. This, of course, is not impossible, but given that even persistent chemical agents are affected by the elements (sun, rain, etc), sceptics will no doubt consider it a little odd and somewhat implausible.

My man in Kaliningrad was a bit of a loudmouth, but I suspect that his views on the Skripal affair are not unrepresentative of Russian public opinion – i.e. most Russians don’t think that their country is guilty, and if anything consider themselves the wronged party, while also regarding the British government as thoroughly nefarious. The latest news is likely to reinforce that point of view, and not just among rowdy football fans. For instance, the online newspaper Vzgliad declared today that the news from Amesbury ‘points to London’s direct participation in the “Skripal affair”.’ ‘How can Russia exploit the situation to finally put an end to suspicions in this regard?’ the newspaper asked.

But if the Amesbury incident is likely to confirm Russians’ belief in their innocence, it will probably also strengthen the British government’s anti-Russian position. For in British eyes, the incident underlines the irresponsible nature of the attack on the Skripals, involving the use of a weapon which not only struck its initial targets but also possibly contaminated a wide area, turning tens of thousands of innocent English citizens into potential victims. British Home Secretary Sajid Javid thus accused the Russian government today of being ‘reckless and callous’, and commented that the use of chemical agents was ‘barbaric and inhumane’. ‘It is completely unacceptable for our people to either be deliberate or accidental targets, or for our streets, our parks, our towns to be dumping grounds for poison,’ said Javid.

Given how strange this entire story is, I await the results of further investigation before coming to any judgement about what has actually happened. In the meantime, the latest twist in the tale will probably serve to reinforce existing positions – those who blame the Russians will be even more convinced of the evil nature of the Russian government, while sceptics (including most Russians) will become even more sceptical. In the days to come, expect positions to harden, and if we end up with a Russia-England World Cup semi-final, look forward to some chants about Novichok in Moscow on 11 July.

It’s bad

I had been putting off writing anything about the poisoning of former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal in England until such time as more evidence became available, and because, to be quite honest, the whole affair is deeply depressing. The announcement that the substance used to poison Skripal was the nerve agent Novichok points the finger of blame firmly at the Russian state. After all, where else would those responsible have gotten such a substance? It isn’t unreasonable to consider agents of the Russian state to be prime suspects in this case, although clearly a lot more research needs to be done to identify who exactly poisoned Skripal and then trace their movements. Regardless, the United Kingdom will no doubt respond in a fairly forceful manner, while what little remains of Russia’s international reputation has been torn to shreds.

If indeed the attack on Skripal was ordered by somebody in authority in Russia, then it’s indicative of quite stunning stupidity on that person’s behalf, which has done enormous harm to Russian interests. It’s also indicative of gross incompetence, given not only that the attack failed to kill Skripal and was delivered in such a manner as to endanger innocent bystanders, but also that the chosen weapon was one which so clearly points to Russian guilt (and also, not unimportantly, constitutes a serious breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention). If those responsible wanted to be found out and wanted to do maximum harm to their country, they couldn’t have done a better job.

All this will, of course, provide lots of grounds for doubters to claim that the Russians couldn’t possibly be so stupid, and that the affair must therefore be some sort of false flag operation. I doubt it. Given a choice between the cock-up and the conspiracy theory, I nearly always go for the former. Alas, experience shows that people in government sometimes really are that stupid, and I don’t see why Russians should be any exception.

Whatever the truth, this isn’t going to end well. For those of us who have been trying to persuade people to work to improve Russian-Western relations, this is like a kick in the teeth. We can point out all the distortions in reporting about Russia till we’re blue in the face, but in the aftermath of something like this nobody is going to pay the slightest bit of attention. It’s bad.