Russia challenges Britain on Skripal: insists on proper procedures being followed; demands answers – By Alexander Mercouris

Russia publishes detailed rebuttal of British claims on Skripal case, demands British answers to host of unanswered questions

A picture taken on April 5, 2012, shows an aerial view of central Moscow, with the headquarters of Russia’s Foreign Ministry, one of the so-called Stalin high rises, in the foreground. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER NEMENOV

The Russian Foreign Ministry has published a formal statement responding to British claims of Russian involvement in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal, and demanding that Britain answer questions about its conduct of the Skripal case

The complete text of the statement – known in diplomatic language as an Aide-memoire – is as follows

21 March 2018    21:33
 
Aide-memoire to clarify the state of affairs as regards the so-called ‘Skripal case’

1. On 12 March 2018, Prime Minister of Great Britain Theresa May, addressing the House of Commons, said it was “highly likely” that the Russian Federation was responsible for the poisoning of former GRU colonel, double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal on 4 March 2018 in Salisbury, with a nerve agent identified according to British classification as A-234.

The United Kingdom has publicly raised a question about Russia’s “concealing” and “using” part of its chemical arsenal, thus alleging that Russia has “violated” its obligations under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (CWC) – one of the most effective multilateral treaties in the disarmament and non-proliferation field, which was initiated, among others, by our country.

Thus, the United Kingdom has come out against Russia as well as against the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) itself and the tremendous work that has been done within this organization during the last two decades, including with participation of the United Kingdom.

Pursuant to the requirements of Article III of the CWC, the Russian Federation submitted a full and complete declaration of all its chemical weapons stockpiles. That data was thoroughly checked and verified by the inspection teams of the OPCW Technical Secretariat. The fact of the full elimination of Russia’s chemical arsenal has been officially confirmed by the authorized international institution – the OPCW.

2. On 12 March 2018, given the gravity of the accusations brought against our country, the Russian Embassy in London sent a note verbale to the Foreign Office of Great Britain requesting access to the investigation materials, including samples of the chemical agent that British investigators were referring to, so that it could be tested by our experts in the framework of joint investigation.

Thus, we proposed to act in accordance with paragraph 2 of Article IX of the CWC. It stipulates that States Parties to the Convention should first make every effort to clarify and resolve, through exchange of information and consultations among themselves, any matter which may cause doubt about compliance with the CWC. Under the provisions of that Article, Russia would be ready to respond to the United Kingdom’s request within 10 days.

Unfortunately, the British side rejected that option and, instead of following the existing norms of international law, chose to unscrupulously politicize the issue.

3. British Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that a special Security Council meeting to discuss the matter be held on 14 March 2018.  Suspecting that London would play dirty, Russia insisted on making the Security Council’s meeting open.

It is incomprehensible what the British side was trying to achieve by bringing the issue to the UNSC. This matter by no means falls within the mandate of the UNSC. It is quite obvious that all discussions are pointless until the OPCW gives its assessment of the Salisbury incident (it is important to know whether a nerve agent was actually used; if it was, how the likely origin of the chemicals was determined; what, and on what basis, actions were taken with regard to the victims, etc.).

4. On 14 March 2018, British Prime Minister Theresa May, apparently having come to senses, finally sent a letter to Director-General of the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW Ahmet Üzümcü (circulated to all OPCW Executive Council Member States on 15 March 2018) inviting the OPCW Technical Secretariat “to independently verify the analysis” of the British investigation into the Salisbury incident.

As indicated in the press release by the British Foreign Office of 18 March 2018, following the letter by Ms Theresa May, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the OPCW invited experts of the OPCW Technical Secretariat to visit the United Kingdom to carry out an independent analysis of the findings of the British Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in connection with the Salisbury incident. On 19 March 2018, OPCW experts arrived in the United Kingdom.

Russia expects the OPCW to make an official detailed account of developments around the ‘Skripal case’. We proceed from the understanding that the OPCW Technical Secretariat shall conduct a full-fledged independent investigation in accordance with all relevant provisions of the CWC.

5. Russia has more and more questions both in legal and practical terms. And we intend to seek answers through the OPCW.

Russia states that it has not used chemical weapons against Great Britain. We suppose that the attack on the Skripals with toxic chemicals shall be deemed a terrorist act. As Yulia Skripal, a Russian citizen, is among the victims to the incident, we propose cooperation with the British Side under Article IX of the CWC.

We would like to ascertain the following issues.

Where, how, and by whom were the samples collected from Sergei and Yulia Skripal? How was it all documented? Who can certify that the data is credible? Was the chain of custody up to all the OPCW requirements when evidence was collected?

Which methods (spectral analysis and others) were used by the British side to identify, within such a remarkably short period of time, the type of the substance used (“Novichok” according to the western classification)? As far as we know, to do that, they must have had a standard sample of such agent at their disposal.

And how do these hasty actions correlate with Scotland Yard’s official statements that “the investigation is highly likely to take weeks or even months” to arrive at conclusions?

What information and medical effects led to a hasty decision to administer antidotes to the aggrieved Skripals and the British policeman? Could that hastiness lead to grave complications and further deterioration of their health status?

Which antidotes exactly were administered? What tests had been conducted to make the decision to use these drugs?

How can the delayed action of the nerve agent be explained, given that it is a fast-acting substance by nature? The victims were allegedly poisoned in a pizzeria (in a car, at the airport, at home, according to other accounts). So what really happened? How come they were found in some unidentified time on a bench in the street?

We need an explanation why it is Russia who was accused on the ‘Skripal case’ without any grounds whatsoever, while works to develop the agent codenamed “Novichok” in the West had been carried out by the United Kingdom, the USA, Sweden and the Czech Republic. There are more than 200 open sources publications in the NATO countries, highlighting the results that those countries achieved in the development of new toxic agents of this type.

6. Even from purely humanitarian perspective London’s action appears simply barbaric. On 4 March 2018 (as British authorities themselves claim) a nerve agent attack against Russian citizen Yulia Skripal was committed in the territory of the United Kingdom.

Russian Federation has demanded exhaustive information on the course of investigation into the Salisbury incident involving a Russian citizen (the Russian Embassy in London sent the relevant note verbale on 12 March 2018).

The United Kingdom is breaching elementary rules of inter-State relations and is still denying, without any explanation, Russian officials’ consular access to Yulia Skripal envisaged by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. For more than two weeks now, we have not been able to credibly ascertain what happened to our citizen and what condition she is actually in.

On 16 March, the Main Directorate for High-Priority Cases of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a criminal investigation into the attempted willful murder of Russian citizen Yulia Skripal committed by dangerous means in the territory of the United Kingdom.

The investigation will be conducted in accordance with the Russian legislation and the norms of international law. Highly qualified experts will contribute to the investigation.

The investigators stand ready to work together with the competent authorities of the United Kingdom. We expect a cooperative approach of the British side.

7. In the UN Security Council as well as in the OPCW and at other international fora, the Russian Federation has been a consistent and insistent proponent of thorough, comprehensive and professional investigation of all crimes involving toxic chemicals, and of bringing perpetrators to justice.

We are ready to engage in full-scale and open cooperation with the United Kingdom in order to address any concerns whether in bilateral format or within the OPCW and other international instruments, working within the purview of international law.

As a responsible member of the international community and a bona fide State Party to the CWC Russia will never speak the language of ultimatums or answer informal and word-of-mouth questions.

The Western countries’ action on the fabricated ‘Skripal case’ contravenes the norms of international law and the general practice of inter-State relations, as well as the common sense itself. Naturally, we run a detailed record of all that, and when time comes, those guilty will inevitably be brought to justice.

Compare this careful statement with this infantile video published by the British Foreign Office, which conflates speculations about the case appearing on Russian television channels and in Russian newspapers with formal statements of the Russian government

To be clear, the Russians have provided a full explanation of their position: they were not involved in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal, they do not possess any stocks of Novichok chemicals, and the Novichok chemical used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal cannot therefore have come from their stocks, which do not exist.

It is perverse and mendacious for the British to go on pretending that the Russians have not fully answered the question Theresa May put to them in her notorious ultimatum of a week ago.  Not only have the Russians fully answered the question; they have done so repeatedly.  It is another matter that the British do not like the answer.

The Russian statement or Aide-memoire speaks for itself, but I will just add two further points to it:

(1) Former British ambassador Craig Murray, whose articles on the Skripal case have been quite simply outstanding, has made the point that the British have never actually said that the chemical agent used in the attack on Skripal was made in Russia.

Instead the formula always used in all British and Western statements about the chemical agent used in the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal is that it was of a type developed by Russia.

I have now received confirmation from a well placed FCO source that Porton Down scientists are not able to identify the nerve agent 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. The Russians were allegedly researching, in the “Novichok” programme a generation of nerve agents which could be produced from commercially available precursors such as insecticides and fertilisers. This substance is a “novichok” in that sense. It is of that type. Just as I am typing on a laptop of a type developed by the United States, though this one was made in China.

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 communique issued by the UK, USA, France and Germany yesterday:

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.

When the same extremely careful phrasing is never deviated from, you know it is the result of a very delicate Whitehall compromise.

To which I would add that the formula of a type developed by Russia is actually wrong.

The family of chemical agents the Western powers call “Novichoks” (apparently it is not a Russian term) were not “developed by Russia”.  They were developed by the USSR, which was a different and much bigger country than Russia.

The main production facility was allegedly in Uzbekistan, which is not part of Russia, though there is actually doubt about whether any “Novichok” agents were ever made there.

The British have apparently tried to get round this problem by saying that Russia is the USSR’s successor state and “assumed responsibility” for all the USSR’s programmes.

This is absurd.  Russia does not control everything that happens across the whole territory of the former USSR and it is absurd to say that it “responsible” for some of the things that might go on there.

Three former constituent republics of the USSR – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are now members of NATO.  Ukraine and Georgia are on bad terms with Russia and are regarded by NATO as NATO aspirant states. Uzbekistan, though currently friendly to Russia, has not always been so.  Moldova is deeply split between a pro-Russian President and a fervidly anti-Russian and pro-Western government.

To suppose that Russia is responsible for what goes on within these countries is ridiculous.  Yet they were part of the USSR – the country where development of the Novichok chemical agents took place – to the same extent that Russia was, and it is at least possible (indeed it is highly likely) that knowledge about the Novichok programme is dispersed across some or all of these countries, just as it is now dispersed in the West.

It seems that the facility where most of the research into Novichok chemical agents was done was located in Saratov which is now in Russia.

However given that the USSR was a different and much bigger country than Russia, it cannot be said that Novichok chemical agents are “of a type developed by Russia”.  It is false and misleading to go on saying so.

(2) An article in the Guardian today contains this quite extraordinary sentence

A Russian official said on Wednesday that Moscow would not accept the results of an inquiry into the source of the poison being undertaken by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

The official in question is Vladimir Yermakov, a deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s department for non-proliferation, who the Guardian also reports in the same article saying the following

It is not possible to evaluate what happened in Salisbury within the framework of the [chemical weapons] convention and within the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Deeper expert evaluations will be needed, and in any case we need to conduct our own investigations for Russia to be able to draw any conclusions

The sentence in the Guardian article saying that “Moscow would not accept the results of the inquiry into the source of the poison being undertaken by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons” is therefore wrong.

Yermakov simply made the point that the OPCW is not a police agency and its role is limited to confirming the identity of the chemical agent used in the attack. In order to find out who actually carried out the attack, and to understand fully what took place in Salisbury, a proper and thorough criminal investigation of the entire incident is needed.

That is obviously correct.

I would add that one of the most troubling aspects of this case is the way the British are trying to present the identity of the chemical agent as “proof” both of its origins and of who was responsible for the attack, when in fact it is no such thing.

To reiterate a point repeatedly made – including by Craig Murray (see above) and by the Moon of Alabama – the mere fact that a Novichok chemical agent might have been used in the attack does not prove that Russia was responsible for the attack because Novichok chemical agents can be made – and have been made – in places other than Russia.

The paragraph in the Guardian is doubly misleading because as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Aide-memoire shows, it was Russia not Britain which originally insisted that the OPCW become involved in establishing which chemical agent was used in the attack, with the British initially resisting all outside involvement.

On the subject of the actual criminal investigation – which alone can determine who was responsible for the attack – the Russian Aide-memoire makes clear that Russia demands that it participate fully in the investigation since the attack being investigated was an attack on its citizens

The United Kingdom is breaching elementary rules of inter-State relations and is still denying, without any explanation, Russian officials’ consular access to Yulia Skripal envisaged by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. For more than two weeks now, we have not been able to credibly ascertain what happened to our citizen and what condition she is actually in.

On 16 March, the Main Directorate for High-Priority Cases of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a criminal investigation into the attempted willful murder of Russian citizen Yulia Skripal committed by dangerous means in the territory of the United Kingdom.

The investigation will be conducted in accordance with the Russian legislation and the norms of international law. Highly qualified experts will contribute to the investigation.

The investigators stand ready to work together with the competent authorities of the United Kingdom. We expect a cooperative approach of the British side.

The Aide-memoire only refers to Yulia Skripal.  However since the Aide-memoire was published the Russians appear to have discovered that Sergey Skripal was a Russian citizen as well.  Apparently he never formally gave up his Russian citizenship, so that so far as the Russians are concerned he has dual citizenship: Russian as well as British.

Here is what Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to Britain, has to say about this

I must make it clear: Sergei Skripal has dual citizenship – Russian and British. Britons said that as he has British citizenship, they will be reporting nothing on his condition to us

Accordingly the Russians will presumably now also demand full consular access to Sergey Skripal as well as to his daughter Yulia Skripal, and no doubt they will also now extend their own investigation to look into the circumstances of the attack on Sergey Skripal, as well as into the attack on his daughter, Yulia Skripal.

This may prove important since it may make it easier for the Russians to obtain – or demand – information about what Sergey Skripal has been up to since he left Russia.

I retain an open mind about who was responsible for the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.  I genuinely do not know who carried out the attack and why, and since I do not know I think it is improper to guess.

What I will say is this: the Russians are offering clear explanations, are posing relevant questions, are insisting on established procedures being followed in accordance with international treaties and with the Chemical Weapons Convention, and are offering their full cooperation to the OPCW, whose involvement they were the first to insist upon.

They are also offering – indeed insisting – on their full participation in the criminal investigation of the attack on two people they say are their citizens.

By contrast the British are keeping what they know secret, initially resisted calling in the OPCW, are blocking the Russians from having consular access to two of their citizens, and are denying the Russians information about the investigation of an attack on two of their citizens.

They are also saying things about a supposed Russian failure to answer questions and a Russian failure to cooperate which are simply untrue.

I leave it to the readers of this article to decide for themselves who – the Russians or the British – is behaving more suspiciously in the conduct of this case.

The Duran

 

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