Diplomatic fallout from the Skripal Affair

By Tony Kevin

April 4, 2018

REUTERS/ Peter Nicholls

Tony Kevin, former Australian diplomat and author of Return to Moscow, has been a strong critic of the finger pointing at Russia by the West. In this article, he explores how the verdict came before the crime.

The Skripal Affair is by no means over, but after the reciprocal diplomatic expulsions now nearing completion, it is timely to attempt a state of play wrap from an independent Australian perspective.

The Skripal affair erupted into the news exactly one month ago, on 4 March in UK. The past month saw a bitter diplomatic breakdown between UK and Russia, with the rest of the Western alliance now drawn in by UK against Russia.

From the beginning, the British Government put Russia in the dock as the most probable guilty party. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland:

“Let the jury consider the verdict” the King said. “No, No” said the Queen: “sentence first, verdict afterwards”. “Stuff and nonsense” said Alice.

Both Sergey Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer turned double agent by Britain, who moved to Salisbury, UK, after a spy exchange in 2010, and his visiting daughter from Russia Julia Skripal, were Russian citizens with Russian passports. Both were reported by UK media to be at death’s door following the attack by an unknown assailant in an unknown place using an unknown substance.

Questions about these matters, and about possible motives for the crime, became more widespread and intense as the month wore on. Meanwhile, irreversible diplomatic actions were taken against Russia by the Western Alliance, instigated by the UK Government with US official support.

A British narrative was put out by British PM Theresa May on 12 March, saying it was ‘highly likely’ that the Skripals (father and daughter) had been poisoned ‘with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia’. May said the origin of the nerve agent and Russia’s past record of assassinations made Russian involvement ‘highly likely’ . She gave Russia a 24-hour ultimatum to explain how Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury, otherwise she would conclude it was ‘an unlawful use of force’ by the Russian state against the UK. She thereby seemed to offer to the Russian state a face-saving way out, which would have allowed Russia to say that some of the offending substance must have got out of Russian state control. They only had to admit they were incompetent.

Russia naturally did no such thing. Putin did not comment before the Russian presidential election on 18 March: the running was left to the Foreign Ministry and to Putin’s media spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. He, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, both ridiculed the British narrative of Russian guilt, as lacking in evidence as to means and motive.

Russia made counter-demands with increasing insistence, for sharing of evidence and samples with Russia and with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons ( OPCW) , as required by the OPCW rules (both countries being members), and for Russian consular access to its citizens the Skripals. Nothing was done, and a total UK Government news blackout continued on the condition of the Skripals or progress in the UK investigation (which police had initially warned could take many weeks or months).

The UK ultimatum took effect on 14 March, when May announced expulsions of 23 Russian Embassy diplomats in UK , said to be undeclared intelligence agents (spies). Three days later on 17 March, Russia announced a retaliatory expulsion of 23 British diplomats in Russia, and closure of the British Council in St Petersburg.

Angry rhetoric mounted on both sides. In his first and only statement, one day after the 18 March presidential election, Putin said it was ‘nonsense’ to accuse Russia of poisoning the Skripals. Rumours began to circulate, e.g., that Skripal had asked Putin if he could return home to Russia.

May and her Foreign Minister Boris Johnson pressed for US and European support. The British accusations against Russia became harsher in tone. The constant repetition of “probable’s” and “very likely’s” created a false reality of universal Western certainty as to Russian guilt.

US officials were sympathetic to UK claims, but President Trump said he would only act against Russia if EU and NATO allies did the same. Britain and US began to lobby NATO and EU allies furiously for expulsions of Russian diplomats, as show of solidarity with UK and US. May met EU leaders in Brussels from 23 to 26 March. She never mentioned Brexit which was to have been the main agenda item there. The numbers mounted – first the majors Germany and France, then most of the rest of the EU and NATO fell into line.  Most countries decided to expel small numbers: 1, 2 or 4 Russian diplomats.

Trump caved in on 26 March, announcing major expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats in US, and closure of an important Russian consulate in Seattle.

By 29 March, 28 ‘Western’ countries had announced expulsions of Russian diplomats, mostly in small numbers of 1 to 4. NATO cut Russian Mission numbers from 30 to 20, and Ukraine expelled 13. In total, over 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from Western-aligned countries and the Russian mission to NATO – the largest number ever. Just a few held out – Portugal, Slovakia, and Turkey.

Australia on 26 March announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats charged by the Australian intelligence agencies with being ‘undeclared intelligence officers’. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop focussed their condemnations on the alleged Russian attack on the Skripals, but took sideswipes at these two alleged Russian spies in Australia. Bishop aggressively upbraided the Russian ambassador in front of a mocking Australian media – her version of shirt-fronting, one supposes. It was rude, in bad taste, and unnecessary.

Turnbull and Bishop had not needed to go this extra mile – most NATO and EU allies simply and legally under the Vienna Convention justified their ‘persona non grata’ expulsions on grounds of solidarity with UK. Only US, Canada and Australia turned the knife in the wound by accusing those Russian diplomats expelled of being spies.

Another anomaly – Australia was the only country outside the EU – NATO region to expel Russian diplomats. Apart from us, not a single Asian, African or Latin American regional country supported the UK accusations against Russia.

As the Western anti-Russian diplomacy mounted in intensity, the UK police investigation of means and motive proceeded at snail’s pace. At least Julia Skripal – and possibly Sergey too – were reported as recovering. The UK Government continued to breach important diplomatic conventions and reciprocal obligations. Britain did not answer a long list of published questions from the Russian Embassy. They refused to provide samples to Russia to test the British claim of a Russian-made nerve agent. Britain took three weeks to provide samples to scientists at the OPCW. A total official news and imagery blackout continued on the state of health of the Skripals (though there have been many unofficial leaks to media) . Russian requests for consular access to their citizens have been ignored.

Over the past four weeks, doubts have mounted exponentially over the truth of the British claims. What were initially dismissed as the unfounded ideas of a few known dissidents like Craig Murray and John Pilger, gathered weight as more doubters joined in, and as the murky history of the ‘Novichuk’ family of nerve gases’ dissemination to laboratories in many western countries, from the broken Russia of the 1990s, become better known. Most reasonable people now accept British and US chemical warfare laboratories would hold experimental stocks of the Novichuk family of poisoning agents, for defensive testing purposes.

Without going beyond the known evidence, doubts also mounted as to the possible motives of different countries. These doubts were magnified by the official British news blackout since 4 March.

A counter-narrative developed, like this:

On means – There is no evidence of Russian unique ownership or contemporary manufacture of the alleged agent, Novichuk. Russia denies that it has any such holdings. Whether that is true or not, there is strong evidence that knowledge how to make Novichuk in experimental quantities has travelled to UK, US and other non-Russian countries, in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. So we do not know yet- after 4 weeks – what nerve agent was used to attack the Skripals, and what country it might have come from.

On motive – intelligence agencies in UK and US would have had stronger apparent motive now than Russia to try to kill the Skripals in a way that might publicly be blamed on Russia – i.e., in a false flag operation. The UK Govt was in deep trouble over Brexit and looking for ways to generate solidarity and sympathy with EU partners, and to wedge and confuse Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party. The Skripal affair was made to measure.

The US Deep State was keen to bring the erratic and impressionable President Trump, known to be personally sympathetic to Putin, into line with their anti-Russian agenda. An event like this would give them their chance to turn him. .

Putin, facing Presidential elections on 18 March and hosting the Football World Cup in June-July, had no reason to want to tarnish his country’s reputation by a an attempted political murder in UK: especially using a chemical agent whose history could so easily traced to Russia.

Thus on a balance of probability UK and US had more to gain, and Russia more to lose, from this attempted murder.

On subsequent cover-up: UK Government conduct since 4 March has been appalling, as noted above. Putting Russia in the dock, issuing peremptory ultimatums, denials of samples and of consular access. Not conduct befitting a fellow member of the UN Security Council , the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the OPCW.

The Russian official response was firmly reciprocal and correct – though the public response in Russia was of rage. Soon after the Western expulsions were announced in full, Russia on 29 March announced expulsions of equal numbers, plus the closure of the American consulate in Saint Petersburg – a key tourism destination. Putin’s message to America – we don’t need your tourism. The total number of western diplomats told to leave Russia is around 170.

What have been the diplomatic impacts, apart from personal disruption to diplomats and their families on both sides, and anger all around at broken trust and bad manners?

Most importantly, a loss of diplomatic expertise and empathy. The people expelled by both sides would have been the best and brightest middle-ranking diplomats , eyes and ears of Russia and the Western Alliance into one another’s thinking and values and strategic red lines.

We desperately need expert informed diplomacy on both sides as the Cold War Redux worsens, if we are to avoid sliding into WW3, most probably in Syria where US and Russian forces continue sabre-rattling at each other. Direct conflict may not be far away. The world did not need this reckless UK provocation.

The only ray of light in this gloomy diplomatic landscape is still Trump. At his direction, the US to the UK’s annoyance signalled to Moscow that the 60 expelled Russian diplomats could soon be replaced. Also, he publicly announced a personal invitation to Putin to visit him at the White House, as he has power to do, though he seems unable meaningfully to shift the US Deep State’s embedded hostility to Russia. Still, a visit might help improve the atmosphere and give heart to those lonely souls in the West working for better understanding with Russia.

Britain remains aggressive and implacable, and is now trying to foment World Cup tourism interference through bogus travel advisories etc.

Embarrassingly, exactly one month after the Skripal atrack, the Chief Executive at Porton Down Defence Science and Technology Laboratory told UK Skynews on 4 April that his laboratory scientists had been able to identify the samples of the attack agent as a military-grade nerve agent, i.e., a ‘Novichuk’, but had been unable to establish where it was manufactured. Exactly what the critics starting with Craig Murray a month ago have been saying all along.

The spin being put on this by the UK Government is that the Porton Down assessment was ‘only part of the intelligence picture’. Brazenly and stubbornly, they now fall back on (sic) ‘Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views former intelligence officers as targets’. Exactly what May said on 12 March.

We are back in the logical world of Luke Harding and Alice in Wonderland – ‘Russia must be guilty, because we know they are’.

It is likely that the OPCW scientists will announce similar conclusions to Porton Down’s, and the British Government will spin its response in a similar way. However, watch for what the Europeans say or do not say in response to the OPCW report. I doubt if they will again show so much solidarity with Britain. Once bitten, twice shy.

But the omelette cannot be unscrambled. The diplomatic damage to Russia-West relations will not be easily or quickly repaired. There is deep anger and sense of yet another Western betrayal in Russia. Russians’ remaining respect for Britain as a decent country has been badly dented.

This is how the Western intelligence agencies like it – more paranoia, bigger counter-intelligence budgets, more jobs and promotions, fewer Russian ‘spies’ to monitor. They have punched Russia in the nose and are feeling a smug satisfaction.

In gloating over their tactical victory, they fail to see the larger strategic mutual disaster that the Skripal Affair has now become. There are no winners here.

The fallout in Australia: These events will play unhelpfully into the current parliamentary consideration of Turnbull’s tough new agent of influence draft laws, directed at China and Russia. The general level of ignorance and prejudice in our Parliament about these two key world powers will increase, and make good law-making less likely.

As to the direct Australia-Russia relationship, even if our Ambassador Peter Tesch and the Russian Ambassador Grigoriy Logvinov – both highly capable diplomats – manage to limit the damage and start the patient process of diplomatic reconstruction, Australia will matter less to Russia, relative to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are outside the Western alliance. There will be less interest by Russia in an informed and cordial dialogue with us, having just seen again what a US lackey we are. Why waste Russia’s best diplomatic resources on us, if we predictably follow UK and US anti-Russian policy leads by expelling good Russian mid-career diplomats, who will no doubt be missed in Russia’s not large embassy here, as alleged ‘spies’? This pointless estrangement benefits neither nation. We have much to offer each other.

Turnbull and Bishop, reflexively supporting the US Deep State and an irresponsible and erratic UK Government, and relying on Australian intelligence agency advice, have not handled this Skripal affair well in the Australian national interest.

Tony Kevin is an Emeritus Fellow at ANU, a former Australian diplomat with service in Soviet Russia, and public servant (1968-98) and author of five non-fiction books since 2004, most recently his literary travel memoir ‘ Return to Moscow’.

Top image: REUTERS/ Peter Nicholls

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