Tag Archives: Sergei Skripal

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.

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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.