The fact that I have posted 3 posts this week on this subject will tell you that I think it is important. Of course, I’m not the only one – it seems to be the main headline on the BBC News website most of the time as well.
I have updated both my last two posts after posting them, and decided that this time, I would just write a new post with my updated thoughts.
I am still perplexed about why the government, and most politicians, seem to be so confident that the Russian authorities – and, indeed, Vladimir Putin himself – are responsible. What do they know that I don’t?
My question answered
So when the BBC posted a short video yesterday entitled “Poisoned ex-spy: Why does UK think it was Russia?“
I pounced eagerly and watched it, to find out what I was missing.
To my surprise, the answer was “not much”. In fact, it left me thinking “Is that it? They are drawing conclusions from that? Seriously?”
The four factors that the BBC gives are:
1) The Nerve agent involved. Scientists at Porton Down have identified it as what is called a novichok. Now this is a type of nerve agent which was specifically developed by Russia. it was supposed to have been destroyed, but it is possible that they kept some stocks. now that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy, but there are other series of issues which point to likelihood. Russian involvement
a) To be pedantic, it was not developed by Russia – it was developed by the Soviet Union, and manufactured not in Russia, but in Uzbekistan.
b) that doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove it was Russia, because other countries could have potentially synthesized or made their own copy” – Why didn’t he just say “That doesn’t necessarily absolutely prove…” Why not just “That doesn’t prove”. The fact that it was developed in the 1980s and the recipe has been widely known for years, means it doesn’t prove anything at all. Indeed, it seems to several people that the last thing the Russians would do was use something that was associated with Russia – but something that someone who wanted to make it look like Russia would have chosen to use something like a Novichok.
c) Craig Murray posted the following yesterday. Actually, the whole of his post is very interesting, but I’ll just quote this bit.
I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve gas as being of Russian manufacture, and have been resentful of the pressure being placed on them to do so. Porton Down would only sign up to the formulation “of a type developed by Russia” after a rather difficult meeting where this was agreed as a compromise formulation. …
To anybody with a Whitehall background this has been obvious for several days. The government has never said the nerve agent was made in Russia, or that it can only be made in Russia. The exact formulation “of a type developed by Russia” was used by Theresa May in parliament, used by the UK at the UN Security Council, used by Boris Johnson on the BBC yesterday and, most tellingly of all, “of a type developed by Russia” is the precise phrase used in the joint communiqué issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany.
When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise. My FCO source, like me, remembers the extreme pressure put on FCO staff and other civil servants to sign off the dirty dossier on Iraqi WMD . . . She volunteered the comparison to what is happening now, particularly at Porton Down, with no prompting from me.
Well, it seems to me that the nerve agent at all does not in any way make it look like Russia is particularly likely to be responsible.
The motive: This was a man who was deemed a traitor in Russia- there is a view in Russian intelligence that traitors should be hunted down as punishment and also as a message to others.
My comment. Funny how the BBC omitted to point out that Skripal didn’t need to be hunted down. He was caught and arrested in Russia in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was released in 2010, when he was pardoned by the Russians, and moved to Britain. The Russian government had already punished him and sent a message to others. They had a chance to deal harshly with him – they didn’t. Why, eight years after his release, would they kill him? What did they have to gain? I can’t see it. As I have already argued, it is difficult to see that they had a motive.
Track Record: Russia has a track of going after dissidents and former most famously there is Alexander Litvinenko , a former Russian security officer based in the UK – who was killed in that case by Radioactive polonium. In that case, an an independent public enquiry led by a judge found it highly likely that Vladimir Putin himself had given the orders for that.
My comment: First, notice that the inquiry found that it was “highly likely” that the Litvinenko was killed under Putin’s orders. So we don’t actually know that. To argue that it is highly likely that Skripal was killed by the Russians on the basis of the fact that it was highly likely that Litvinenko was seems pretty weak to me.
Furthermore, as Mary Dejevsky points out, not only is the Russian government’s role in the killing of Litvinenko uncertain, there are key differences between his case and that of Skripal – not least, as I say, the fact that Skripal was arrested, punished, and freed by the Russians, whereas Litvinenko fled the country.
Any other explanation? – So if you put all that together – the means used, the motive, the track record,- that collection of facts is why the government assesses it as highly likely that the Russians were involved. And so far, there’s not really a clear other hypothesis which would explain Sergei Skripal was targeted in Salisbury.
My comment: So, because you can’t come up with another explanation that satisfies you, you jump to conclusions? It seems to me that when someone does this, it if often a sign that they had pretty much made up their mind already.
The evidence that we are being told about, it seems to me, does not look at all convincing at this point. And we are not being told that there is more to come. I actually wonder if the OPCW report will throw much more light on the matter.
But there are three reactions from MPs that I think are worth commenting on.
Iain Duncan Smith said
“Russia is as close to being a rogue state as any. It . . . has created a hell on earth in Syria and is, even now, overseeing worse action.”
That is a startling assertion. The terrible things that are happening in Syria are a result of the war there – and the main reason that the war got started and became utterly horrific was the fact that various nations actively supported Islamist rebel groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, and their various accomplices and allied. Those nations that supported the Jihadists – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the USA – are the ones largely responsible for the “hell on earth” that Syria became. Russia was involved in helping the Syrian government fight them. The fact that Iain Duncan Smith blamed Russia tells me that he is someone whose opinion about Russia is utterly worthless.
And, I guess while we are on the subject of states that create “hells on earth” in other countries, which two nations created a hell on earth by their invasion of Iraq in 2003? And guess who was the Conservative Party leader at the time – who supported the invasion? Yes, it was Iain Duncan Smith. In fact, Wikipedia tells us that In November 2001, he was one of the first politicians to call for an invasion of Iraq.
Boris Johnson said
“We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was [Putin’s] decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.”
Well, I don’t – but I think the interesting thing is that Russian’s response was to say that the accusations against Mr Putin were “shocking and unforgivable”.
The word “unforgivable” jumped out at me – since I believe strongly in forgiveness. But I also believe that forgiveness requires repentance. And so I wondered if Boris Johnson would be prepared to apologise if it became clear that Putin probably had not been involved in the decision – or even if it looked increasingly uncertain that he was. One of the big questions about this whole matter is whether the people who are speaking with such vehemence against the Russians at the moment would be prepared to change their minds if the evidence suggests that they are wrong – or if they will never do that, no matter what the evidence points to.
And the matter of evidence brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, who, among other things has said,
“The attack in Salisbury was an appalling act of violence. Nerve agents are abominable if used in any war. It is utterly reckless to use them in a civilian environment.
Our response as a country must be guided by the rule of law, support for international agreements and respect for human rights. Our response must be decisive, proportionate and based on clear evidence. “
And he asked the Prime Minister some good questions:
“If the government believe that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW with our allies? I welcome the fact that the police are working with the OPCW.
Has the prime minister taken the necessary steps under the chemical weapons convention to make a formal request for evidence from the Russian government under Article IX(2)?
How has she responded to the Russian governments request for a sample of the agent used in the Salisbury attack to run their own tests? Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators? “
It seemed to me like Corbyn was the adult in the room for saying those things. But simply asking those questions got him booed in the Commons.
Despair and Hope
I must confess that at this point, I despair over this country, its political leadership, and its mass media. The hysterical reaction to Skripal’s poisoning shows either complete stupidity, or utter blindness, or shocking dishonesty – or some combination of these things. Oddly enough, I am not sure how much this is shared by the rest of the country. I have not heard many people commenting, but I was told yesterday of a conversation between two teachers in a local high school in which one expressed scepticism about Russian involvement – and the other didn’t seem to disagree.
But I am concerned – very concerned – about our governing classes – and the media, who do a huge amount to shape the way people think. And when I heard that the political leaderships of the US, Germany, and France, were embracing the UK government’s position, it made it even worse.
What am I, as a Christian, supposed to think?
Well – 3 passages from the Bible have come to mind.
1. I suppose Hebrews 11:13 should be obvious, because it appears at the top of this blog:
they admitted that they were aliens and temporary residents / foreigners / strangers on earth.
When I listen to these politicians, I wonder what planet they live on. But perhaps it is me that is out of step, and that I don’t really belong.
2. But those are not the words that actually came to my mind first. Rather, I thought of some words from Psalm 46:6. I thought of them as they are found in Sing Psalms:
“The nations are in disarray”.
Usually, that is translated something like “The nations rage”. The word used literally means to make a lot of noise, and “Nations are in uproar” seems to be a good translation.
What should Christians think? What does the psalm make of the fact that nations are in uproar? Where is God in all this? The Psalm tells us:
“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”
3. In a sense, that is the final word. But I can’t resist adding some words from the prophet Isaiah (2:4):
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
I may despair of our political leaders. But I don’t despair.