Nafeez Ahmed recently published a report for Insurge Intelligence calling the official story ‘discredited’ and arguing that the government is ‘manufacturing a case for action against Russia’. Like former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, Ahmed criticised Theresa May for her ‘rush to judgement’ and the government’s failure to present any evidence in support of their claims.
Ahmed outlined to Sputnik what he sees as the major problems with the British government’s story. He said that even if we assume the identification of Novichok is correct this does not necessarily implicate the Russian government because others could have made the same poison independently. The existence of the ‘covert USSR-run Novichok programme’ only came to light after a senior Soviet scientist, Vil Mirzayanov, defected and published a book. Ahmed explained:
“The problem is that while Mirzayanov has been interviewed by the press saying that "only" the Russian state could have pulled of this attack, he also said that anyone could theoretically manufacture Novichok by following the formulas he has openly published in his 2008 book chronicling his defection.”
Ahmed also brought up the fact Mirzayanov wrote in a 1995 paper that Novichok was designed so that it could be produced from ‘ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies’ and thus ‘the components to create Novichoks could be easily hidden in normal activities.’ He went on:
“What this means, though, is that the lead source of the claims about Novichok actually is saying that this 'military-grade nerve agent' can be manufactured by literally any qualified person using his formulas. This is quite extraordinary, and completely contradicts Theresa May's claim that the Russian state alone must be the source of the Novichok.”
The OPCW — ‘It gets murkier’
‘It gets murkier’, according to Ahmed, because the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) verified the complete destruction of Russia’s chemical weapons manufacturing capabilities. He pointed out that the OPCW’s scientific advisory board included Dr Robin Black, who was apparently involved at Porton Down in the detection of Novichok in the Skripal poisoning. In 2013 the board dismissed the threat from alleged secret Russian stocks of Novichok due to the lack of information about their properties, or solid evidence that they even existed.
“Black wrote a scientific review about chemical weapons in 2016 in which he also stated that there was no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov's claims about Novichoks.”
He highlighted the British government’s latest move to have the OPCW participate in the Salisbury poisoning investigation to verify its claims about Novichok being used, and asked:
“How can the OPCW verify something whose very existence and properties they don't have any information on? And given that the OPCW found no evidence of any Novichok programmes in Russia, how would they be able to confirm or deny that any such Novichok evidence from Salisbury leads unequivocally to Russia and Russia alone?”
Furthermore, as Murray has drawn attention to, Mirzayanov is an Uzbek name and if there was a Soviet Novichok development programme then it was in Uzbekistan, ‘far away from modern Russia’. Murray’s blog records how he visited the Nukus chemical weapons site, and confirms that it was dismantled and the chemical weapons stocks destroyed by the US government, a process that finished while Murray was ambassador there. Murray wrote:
“There has in fact never been any evidence that any ‘novichok’ ever existed in Russia itself.”
‘A trans-Atlantic decision to ramp up pressure on Russia’
When asked about the motives behind the British government’s public claims of Russian responsibility, Ahmed pointed to a 2017 US Army document that discusses the overthrow of Vladimir Putin and plans to destabilize Russia and mold it into ‘what the West wants Russia to look like’. He zeroed in on the contradictions inherent in the situation:
“It seems that for whatever reason, there is a trans-Atlantic decision to ramp up pressure on Russia… Imagine if such a document had been found from the Russian military saying similar things about the US? There'd be uproar, and rightly so. Not so, curiously, when it comes to our own governments.”
As such, Ahmed explained, the decision to immediately blame the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal is ‘thoroughly politicised’ and ‘the British state has seized the moment to whip up anti-Russian hysteria’. He cited the domestic impact as ‘everybody stops talking about how idiotic the Tory government is, instead obsessing about Putin’, and criticized the British press for willingly going along with the government’s story:
“It's pretty revealing that almost no effort to scrutinise the UK government's approach to this has come from the press at all. In fact, the climate is the opposite. Anyone who asks questions is essentially a pro-Russian stooge or a Putin lover talking obvious absurdities. This is a bizarre McCarthyist climate.”
The Other Potential Culpritsreport details several revelations from the British National Archives on Porton Down’s involvement in chemical and biological warfare experiments on the British public.
Beyond the potential involvement of Porton Down – which is only a few miles from where the Skripals were found – Ahmed offered some other suggestions as to what might have happened. He said that Skripal was ‘clearly a double agent’ for both Britain and Russia, and hence ‘it is impossible for us to guess which other state secrets he may have shared or compromised’. If the Russian government wanted him dead then, Ahmed suggests, they could have done it while he was in prison in Russia, asking:
“In that period, there were all sorts of opportunities to kill him. Why now? And why do it in such a way that is completely self-incriminating?”
Aside from motives, Ahmed pointed to several states who likely have samples of Novichok, and hence the means to carry out a covert poisoning using the poison, including the US, UK and Israel. He said:
“A genuinely open investigation would seek to find out whether any of those samples were compromised, and if so, by whom. It would also remain entirely open to the possibility that their respective state agencies themselves could have perpetrated this covert action.”
Of all the possibilities, Ahmed said, we should take seriously Murray’s argument that Israel have ‘a direct motive to malign Russia due to its actions in the Middle East and Syria, which have undermined its interests, and having the nerve agent capability; and for having a similar propensity for foreign assassinations.’
What Happens Next?
Regarding the probable next steps in this saga, Ahmed offered little cause for optimism, suggesting that the recent tensions between Russia and major Western powers could spill over into military conflict, observing:
“Given Britain's glowing track record, it's highly likely that we will continue on a path of jingoistic escalation. This is very bad sign – the 2017 US Army document I mentioned specifically warns about the imminent risk of a third global conflict, specifically involving Russia… The more jingoistic we go, the more likely we move toward that sort of alarming trajectory.”
With the British government refusing the Russian government’s request for access to the evidence from Salisbury, it appears the countries will remain at loggerheads. Ahmed predicted that the May government will continue to keep the evidence secret and that there will be no public examination of what happened and who might be responsible:
“I expect that there will be no further publicising or opening up of the key evidence, meaning that whatever happens next, it won't be possible for the public to verify the UK government's claims independently.”
He called on the government to share its findings and the samples from Salisbury with the Russian government, and ‘to allow the police to continue its investigation of the attack and potential perpetrators without politicised interference.’ Ahmed said that a serious investigation would trace the Skripals’ movements in the days, weeks and months leading up to the poisoning and would interview Sergei’s MI5 and MI6 handlers to find out what he information he was dealing with. Though this would take months to do, it would ‘produce a body of information by which to assess who and how someone got to them with nerve agent, as well as opening up lines of inquiry regarding motive.’ Ahmed commented:
“You can't seriously resolve and close such an investigation with a firm conclusion of culpability within one week.”
Looking inward, Ahmed also highlighted the possible connection to Porton Down, saying ‘There needs to be some sort of process to open up exactly what Porton Down's relationship with Novichok is… We also now know for sure from looking at the Russian chemist who blew the whistle on Novichok that it is not just the Russian state which can create it; and we can presume that if it does exist, the US, UK and Israel have the knowhow as well.’ He concluded:
“This raises fundamental questions about the internal decision-making process by which the government decided that it has to start going after Russia, as it doesn't seem to have been grounded in anything truly substantive, as opposed to speculative and ideological.”
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.