OPCW: the Place to Investigate a Nerve Agent sample

One can only wish Sergei Skripal and his daughter a good and complete recovery. Skripal once helped a good cause, and suffered for it in the past. He deserves gratitude, and all former agents living under similar circumstances as he does (or did, until March 4), deserve protection. One thing is for sure: Russia’s political culture encourages lawlessness in the name of “patriotism” – suspicions as aired by Britain’s foreign minister Boris Johnson*) aren’t made up out of thin air. But a plausible narrative is still just a narrative, and even thick air is still only air.

In situations like these, anger and “highly likely” accusations are useless at best, and highly likely, they are damaging for all parties involved.

If Jan von Aken‘s comments in a Deutschlandfunk interview on Thursday are something to go by, there would be no need for the escalation that is under way – at least not yet. The established procedure would be to turn to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), to get their assistance in clarifying any situation which may be considered ambiguous or which gives rise to a concern about the possible non-compliance of another State Party with the chemical weapons convention. In the Skripal case, Russia would have to answer to the OPCW’s executive committee “as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the receipt of the request” to clarify.

What Theresa May said on Wednesday is anything but evidence:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

In a conflict, the two immediate parties are rarely the best candidates to sort things out – not, when there is a history of conflict, or when, as the Economist has put it, Britain’s relationship with Russia is poisoned already.

Britain’s ultimatum for an explanation from Moscow had been contemptuously ignored,

writes the Economist. That may be so. Many Russian citizens have their rights ignored, too. But on a day-to-day basis, few people in the West would care. And if I were a Russian, I would probably find the British ultimatum just as comtemptuous – no matter if pro-Putin, anti-Putin or either.

After a first round of escalations, London now seems to be doing the right thing: they have sent (or will send) a sample of the Novichok nerve agent to the OPCW. That looks like a promising first step. The OPCW should also take care of further procedures, if there should be a chance to come to real conclusions.

Van Aken believes that both the British prime minister and the Russian president may have an interest in the current escalation. But May’s chances to rise to the “challenge” don’t look great, and Putin is going to “win the elections” anyway.

Rather, both of them appear to have concluded that they must serve their constituencies with instant certainties.

____________

Note

*) “The message is clear: We will find you, we will catch you, we will kill you – and though we will deny it with lip-curling scorn, the world will know beyond doubt that Russia did it.”

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8 Comments to “OPCW: the Place to Investigate a Nerve Agent sample”

  1. Thing is, JR, we’ve seen this a number of times before: Russia denies everything whilst they are overwhelmingly the most likely culprits, an investigation ensues, which takes a long time to reach its conclusion – blaming Russia – and in the meantime the heat on Russia has blown over and Putin has gotten away with (literal) murder. This was the case with the murder of Litvinienko, this was the case with MH17, this was the case with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, this was the case with Russian involvement in Syria, this looks like being the case with Russian interference in Western elections and referendums.

    The impression one gets is as if person after person were being stabbed to death in front of a detective, who then must examine each body painstakingly for clues as though they did not just witness what happened and have not seen this done repeatedly.

    We are not in a criminal court. “Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is not the standard we should apply when making policy. “Balance of probabilities” is a good-enough standard in this case, particularly as Putin-enemies are still being murdered here in the UK (the latest being the strangling of Nikolai Glushkov) making rapid action essential.

    And the evidence overwhelmingly points to the Putin regime. We have a Putin opponent, who Putin had publicly threatened, attacked with a weapon only produced in Russia, whose family has also seen multiple suspicious Russia-linked deaths, in a way very similar to the death of Litvinienko, with a wry and sarcastic response to the attempt on his life from the Russian authorities that barely bothers to deny responsibility for what they have obviously done.

    The act of unleashing a horrific nerve agent in the middle of a peaceful city, against civilians and police officers, is utterly reprehensible. Putin must be made to pay otherwise he will do this again and again and again.

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  2. “Balance of probabilities” is a good-enough standard in this case

    I agree that a balance of probabilities will be good enough. But these probabilities have to be provided by an independent institution – neither Moscow nor “our” intelligence services are trustworthy.

    If the West wants to disengage from Russia, that’s fine with me. But that needs to be based on a well-thought strategy. Decisions taken – or brought about – “before the heat has blown over” only lead to more problems, not to solutions.

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  3. When the OPCW concludes (just as the MH17 investigation did) that the weapon used in this heinous attack most likely came from Russia, be prepared for the following from “Russia understanders”:

    1) “The OPCW is not independent”

    2) “They said “most likely” and that means they aren’t certain, therefore we should do nothing”

    3) “The Russians should be allowed to test it”/”The Russian experts on the OPCW didn’t back the finding of the majority”

    4) “[*Insert insane conspiracy theory that basically require you believe that the British government tried to murder their own agent in a way incredibly embarrassing for the British authorities using a Russian weapon against a Putin opponent that Putin had threatened in a known Putin M.O. here*]”

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  4. I don’t know what a M.O. is. Can you explain?

    I can only speak for myself: if the OPCW can establish a highly likely link between the sample and a – Russian – production site, that will be credible evidence to me.

    You are concerned about how easily people forget, and I think that’s understandable. But oblivion cuts both ways – sometimes in Western governments’ favor, sometimes not. People tend to forget how their MPs and elected officials get “stovepiped” – and they are hardly aware about how they themselves are continuously stovepiped.

    Peoples’ vulnerability to conspiracy theories is just the other side of credulity. I can’t see that either your or my country’s political class would be terribly interested in a judicious public.

    A free country is a more likely target of authoritarian regimes than a peer regime. Asymmetrical warfare can be hard to respond to, except if officials don’t care about the credibility of their response, and shoot before asking questions.

    Maybe these cases are embarrassing for Britain. But it seems to me that it depends on who’s looking on. I’m sure there are Russians, and people from all countries including Britain, who find them embarrassing, and who are crowing exactly for that reason. But they are just the usual suspects, and I see no reason to share their view, or to enhance their status by giving my attention to them.

    Moscow – if responsible – may have their gratification now, just like the imperial Chinese authorities had theirs, according to Sun Yat-sen, in the old days. I think the British government could and should have done better to be convincing. The best thing a reasonable government can do – besides involving the OPCW – is to step up protection for those who are probably under threat, and wait for the opportunity to seize a smoking gun.

    Two footnotes: I don’t think of “Russian understanders” as a derogatory term, and I think Russia has played a mostly positive role in Syria.

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  5. “I don’t know what a M.O. is. Can you explain?”

    M.O. = Modus operandi, basically the method by which the crime was committed (in this case, poisoning with a rare material that could only have come from Russia – exactly as with the Litvinienko case).

    “Peoples’ vulnerability to conspiracy theories is just the other side of credulity.”

    I don’t think willingness to embrace conspiracy theories is related to credulity. Studies of conspiracy theorists show them to be capable of believing even entirely contradictory conspiracy theories, so long as the subject of the conspiracy theory is the same. Conspiracy theorists do not believe the conspiracy theories they tout, they merely hate the subject of the conspiracy theory and are willing to endorse anything to the detriment of the subject.

    The purpose of these conspiracy theories, many of which emanate from Russian state media outlets like RT, is not to make us believe them. It is to make us believe nothing, and more important, do nothing.

    Hence we have people on the far left in the UK who will say things like “Of course it wasn’t a nerve agent, I mean Porton Down is just 7 miles away”, despite this lacking any logic or even internal consistency. Jeremy Corbyn’s willingness to hint at these conspiracy theories (e.g., his call for us to give samples of the poison to the Russians – as though this was the way investigations worked) is of a piece with this. You see similar things coming from the Brexiteer far right.

    At its most base we have the ridiculous situation where people on the left have spent the last five days complaining about a background on the BBC program “Newsnight” making Jeremy Corbyn, who by choice wears the same kind of cap that Lenin wore, and who regularly gave speeches at rallies attended by the British Communist Party, look like a communist. This whilst three people lie in hospital and dozens more have been affected by a nerve agent known to cause crippling disabilities even in those who recover from the initial symptoms.

    “I don’t think of “Russian understanders” as a derogatory term”

    There is of course, nothing wrong with understanding Russia, but this is not what the “Russia understanders” do. Indeed many of them clearly do not understand Russia. They also clearly do not understand the countries which they appear to believe should be natural satraps of a Russian Empire. The people who just shrugged and acted as though we could not do anything as the shells and bombs fell in the Donbass, and who maintained a tactical naivety about the identity of the “Little Green Men” as they carried out Europe’s first invasion and annexation since the second world war are not the people I look to for analysis.

    It seems to me that these people would happily wash their hands of the Baltics and Poland, and allow cities and nations to be pummelled into dust by Russian aggression, as it would suit their idea of how the world should be.

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  6. Studies of conspiracy theorists show them to be capable of believing even entirely contradictory conspiracy theories, so long as the subject of the conspiracy theory is the same. Conspiracy theorists do not believe the conspiracy theories they tout, they merely hate the subject of the conspiracy theory and are willing to endorse anything to the detriment of the subject.

    Not sure if I’m getting this – let me rephrase it: conspiracy theorists are capable of believing their theories as long as these target a subject they hate? But they also merely hate the target and therefore endorse the conspiracy theory without believing in them? That looks contradictory to me.

    Jeremy Corbyn, who by choice wears the same kind of cap that Lenin wore

    First of all, I’m wearing Lenin’s hat, too. Peaked caps are useful when you have to drive into the sunrise or into opposing traffic’s traveling light.

    I think it’s wrong to complain about the BBC – their comedy seems to rain evenly on everyone. But I think I won’t address your criticism of Corbyn in the future, because I believe that disliking him for being a leftist or communist-leaning is wrong, too. It’s your opinion, I understand that it’s based on your personal experience with leftists, and I respect that. Shout at him as much as you want; I don’t mind, but I won’t join you either. It’s because of people like Corbyn that people like me got access to further education in the 1970s and 1980s.

    I went into compulsory military service when it was my turn in the 1980s, rather than into a civilian service, because I believed (and believe) that freedom needs to be defended – Poland and the Baltics included. I also believe that I take the threats from Russia (which exist, no matter if this particular case turns out to be Putin’s work or not) more seriously than Corbyn and many of his supporters. But preparedness to defend our freedom, and socialism, can coexist peacefully in one man – there is no fundamental conflict between the two. I can tell, because I’m a living specimen.

    And I can live in peace with fellow citizens who look at these issues differently. If their conscience tells them that Russia got licked by the West during the 1990s, or that radical pacifism is the way, then that’s their way, and it’s not my job to change them. Arguments from either direction are sometimes important, but among grownups, they rarely lead to a change of mind. If anything can do that, it’s most likely personal experience, rather than words.

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  7. “Not sure if I’m getting this – let me rephrase it: conspiracy theorists are capable of believing their theories as long as these target a subject they hate? But they also merely hate the target and therefore endorse the conspiracy theory without believing in them? That looks contradictory to me.”

    The survey found that people who, for example, said they believed that Princess Diana was assassinated by the secret services, were also very likely to say they believed that Princess Diana was still alive. Do you think these people really genuinely believed either of these things? That they had considered both theories and decided them both to be true?

    Or was it simply a function of their antipathy towards the subject of these conspiracy theories (the government/royal family) to endorse such theories?

    “I think I won’t address your criticism of Corbyn in the future, because I believe that disliking him for being a leftist or communist-leaning is wrong, too.”

    The point is not whether I like Corbyn or not. The point is that for most of the last week a large section of the British left found itself far more engaged with, and enraged about, a ludicrous conspiracy theory (the BBC photoshopped Corbyn to make him look like a communist) than with the discussion of the real issue of Russian influence.

    “But preparedness to defend our freedom, and socialism, can coexist peacefully in one man – there is no fundamental conflict between the two.”

    I have no quarrel with people on the left (Nick Cohen is a good example, though his being such an example means that some on the left no longer recognise him as such) who do not allow their dislike of their own government’s policies lead them to an endorsement of foreign dictatorships. I greatly prefer them to people on the right who pose as patriots whilst pursuing things they know or should know will be incredibly damaging to their country, and are also happy to find time to appear on RT.

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  8. The survey found that people who, for example, said they believed that Princess Diana was assassinated by the secret services, were also very likely to say they believed that Princess Diana was still alive. Do you think these people really genuinely believed either of these things? That they had considered both theories and decided them both to be true?

    Can the survey be found online? I think some context would be useful. I think we also need to make a difference between developers and followers of conspiracy theories, even if they may overlap at times.

    So far, I doubt that the people in question gave much consideration to anything. That’s exactly the problem, in my view. Let me take an example from my country.

    During the cold war, most people I know feared Russia. Some hated the country. They wouldn’t even give much consideration to what was Russian, Estonian, Ukrainian, or Uzbek. It was all Russia, it was dangerous, and we were the good guys. I think few Westerners understand how reactionary this country was, before the 1970s. Otherwise quite normal and friendly people held bigoted views about “the East”, to put it mildly, especially given the recent history of WW2, and not too many seemed to take offense from that. We were perfect anti-communist allies. Now, some of the most fervent anti-communist people I’ve known in the past have become the greatest Putin fans.

    Maybe a particular public case here is this post-1990 story. It’s about a share of Germans from Russia, around Heinrich Groth, a Russia-German politician. Groth once led a movement that repatriated Germans in Russia to Germany. Decades later, he seems to be Putin’s useful idiot.

    As far as I can develop a hypothesis, it would be that people believe in systems that seem to work for them. I’m thinking of the Chinese middle class as an example, although I can’t cite any authoritative statistics (for obvious reasons). People believe positively when things work, and their beliefs take shades of black when things go wrong for them.

    I see either of these – belief in the authorities and disbelief of Groth’s kind – as two sides of the same coin.

    Princess Diana – I suppose, from what I know myself – wasn’t only a function to target or blacken the name of the royal household or the government. There were many people who felt that she “cared”, and who (as the Queen aptly put it) “felt that they knew her”. To me, that looks as much like positive public affection and gratitude (for her “care”), as it looks like anger directed against the evil stepmother-in-law, or the government. The earlier attitude was encouraged by propaganda (including Buckingham Palace PR), the latter is discouraged. This kind of public attitude towards authorities is something like a derivative of their conditions of life (“as felt” or “as is” – hard to tell). But it cuts both ways, into a believing and into a rather nihilist direction, depending on how people feel about their own lives. The only thing you’ll rarely find among the public is reason.

    I greatly prefer them to people on the right who pose as patriots whilst pursuing things they know or should know will be incredibly damaging to their country, and are also happy to find time to appear on RT.

    Feel free to call me a whataboutist, Foarp, but I think we need to see things in proportions – or to try, at least. Nick Cohen, as far as I can remember, did quite some damage himself, by supporting the 2003 Iraq war, for example. Yes, Corbyn (and others) appear on RT. Yes, they or many of their supporters subscribe to conspiracy theories. One caveat however: I only became aware of the degree to which I’m treated as a terrorist suspect without rights to privacy when Snowden unpacked those dirty parcels – and I read news articles the days following that, suggesting that “only meta data” was ever read out. And although I doubted the “Iraqi WMD story from the beginning, and found Blair’s “the-risk-of-inaction” speech reprehensible, it still somehow shocked me how shamelessly the narrative after the “regime change” turned from “find-the-WMD” to “Saddam-was-a-bad-dictator-after-all-and-had-to-go”. Therefore, I’m becoming thrifty with blaming people with conspiracy theories. I find their disbelief understandable.
    Also, a footnote to my caveat: Snowden would be in an American jail now, if it wasn’t for Russia, and I’m not sure how he’d fare there.

    If you don’t want RT to provide their nihilist faithful with “the missing part”, don’t go after them. They are abroad, and they aren’t accountable to you. Go after those who are (or should be) accountable to you and who still give a fuck on accountability. RT is filling credibility gaps recklessly left by the likes of Tony Blair, and David Cameron.

    Talking about David Cameron: It may have become sort of a custom to joining business after leaving politics, and to take jobs you’ve helped create yourself while leading the government. The name of the game is Gazprom in Germany, and £750m investment initiative in Britain. Do you remember the fuss when Schröder went into the Gazprom board? I find the fuss justified, but I haven’t lost a word either about him, nor about Cameron (although I don’t find the interpretations read into his choice encouraging).

    I’m not making a fuss of Corbyn’s “pro-Russian” engagements either. One reason is that I find him comparatively faithful to his mandate, to represent his constituency. But above all, too much personal criticism and symbolism blinds for the real problems. Worse, they only help to split society. To strengthen forces of cohesion, passions need to be cooled, not fed. And politicians need to be held accountable. We must take care of our political classes. And only the Russians can take care of Putin – apart from one or another Western sanction that won’t become a gamechanger anyway, and which probably won’t find early adopters in Japan.

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