A poisonous affair: Russia accused

The British government’s response to the alleged poisoning with a nerve agent of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March 2018 has been one of calculated aggression, with no room for doubt that the trail ‘leads inexorably to the Kremlin’ (Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary). The Labour Party’s response has been to round on its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for having asked for the evidence before condemning Russia. Corbyn called on the government to pursue established international legal and diplomatic procedures, but this has been turned into a test of the Labour Party’s fitness to serve British imperialism in government. The Labour Party does not intend to be found wanting. Trevor Rayne reports.

Britain was joined by the US, France and Germany in blaming Russia for the attempted murder. On 15 March, the four countries stated: ‘The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely Russia was responsible for the attack.’ This likelihood has nothing to do with the emergence of evidence relating to the attack, but everything to do with US, British and European imperialism’s hostility to Russia’s challenge to their domination of the world in the Middle East, the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and elsewhere. The events in Salisbury, whatever took place, are part of a propaganda campaign conducted by the British and other governments, with the media, against Russia. It is consistent with the strategy of militarily surrounding Russia and weakening and fragmenting the Russian state.

Sergei Skripal was a Russian intelligence officer convicted in 2006 of passing to Britain information on Russian agents working in Europe. He was one of four prisoners Russia exchanged in 2010 for ten Russians who had been arrested for spying by the US FBI.

Despite a top British chemical weapons expert, Dr Alistair Hay, saying it would take ‘weeks, possibly months’ to identify the agent used in the attack, on 12 March Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament that: ‘The government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.’

May said that the nerve agent used was of a type developed by Russia called Novichok. The verbal formula ‘of a type developed by Russia’ is carefully chosen. No evidence has been disclosed that the nerve agent was produced in Russia, let alone applied on the orders of the Russian state. Nevertheless, May summoned Russia’s ambassador to Britain to the Foreign Office, giving him 36 hours to explain what Russia knew of the attack, adding: ‘Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.’ Unless the Russian state provided an answer satisfactory to the British government, the government presumed Russian guilt. This is a diabolical return to the medieval practice of deeming silence to be a sign of guilt; only a confession will do.

Government ministers took their cue: Boris Johnson said it was ‘the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War’; Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told Russian President Putin and his government to ‘go away and shut up’ and said the British government would spend £48m on a new chemical-warfare centre at Porton Down; Johnson then claimed that Russia had produced and stockpiled nerve agents ‘within the last ten years’ and said that the British government would back a law similar to the Magnistky Act in the US, enabling the government to seize assets of Russians accused of human rights abuses and ban them from entering Britain. Outrageously, Johnson likened Putin to Hitler.

The Foreign Office claimed it had information that Russia was producing and stockpiling Novichok in violation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. We are not told where that information came from; nor are we told how reliable it is. We are not told when in the past decade the production and stockpiling took place; Russia’s entire stock of chemical weapons was verified as destroyed by the end of 2017 by the intergovernmental Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, and Scottish Nationalist Party leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, gave their full backing to the Prime Minister, but Corbyn drew shouts of ‘disgrace’ and ‘shame’ for pointing out that ‘Russian oligarchs and their associates’ had given some £800,000 to the Conservative Party. Corbyn then asked the Prime Minister if a sample of the alleged toxin could be sent to Russia for investigation, in keeping with the Chemical Weapons Convention. For asking for evidence to back the government’s accusation that the Russian government was responsible for the attack, the Sun branded Corbyn ‘Putin’s Puppet’ and the Daily Mail led with ‘Corbyn, the Kremlin Stooge’, subheading with ‘Mutinous Labour MPs accuse [Corbyn] of appeasement for not condemning Putin.’ Writing in The Guardian, Corbyn added to their ire by pointing out ‘Flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers led to the calamity of the Iraq invasion. There was overwhelming bipartisan support for attacking Libya, but it proved to be wrong.’ The Labour leader was clearly off script, saying that we should not ‘resign ourselves to a “new cold war” of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.’

Leading Labour MPs are determined to prove their reliability to the British ruling class. Pat McFadden set the tone: ‘Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership. There is a Labour tradition that understands that, and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that dispatch box.’ Yvette Cooper MP, former Shadow Home Secretary, said Russia’s actions ‘must be met with unequivocal condemnation’. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said there was ‘prima facie evidence’ that the Kremlin was responsible ‘and they must therefore face the consequences’. Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith chimed in that she was also ‘pointing the finger at Russia’.

The anti-Corbyn Labour MP for Barrow, John Woodcock, who, in 2016, claimed that the Labour left encouraged anti-Semitism, stated: ‘A clear majority of Labour MPs, along with the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance she [Theresa May] is taking.’ Woodcock, former chair of Labour Friends of Israel, is Shadow Transport Minister. He tabled an early day motion stating that it ‘unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability’ for the Salisbury attack. At the last count over 30 Labour MPs had signed the motion. The intention is not just to prove Labour’s credibility to British imperialism, but to isolate Corbyn and force him to submit.

On 18 March Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell showed that he had got the message, saying ‘whichever way you look at it’ Russia’s Vladimir Putin ‘is responsible and all the evidence points to him … I completely agree with the Prime Minister’.

Corbyn has not entirely capitulated to the attack, but he is restricted in what he can say by the priority of maintaining Labour Party unity. On 20 March Corbyn told the BBC: ‘I think Russia has to be held responsible for it but there has to be an absolute definitive answer to the question, where did the nerve agent come from?’ He repeated the demand that Russia be given a sample of the agent so that they could do their own tests. This elicited the immediate response from Zionist Labour MP Mike Gapes that Corbyn was misguided, adding: ‘It is time to take tough action.’

The government claims that Novichok was used to poison the Skripals and the police officer who attended them. We were shown scenes of specialists clad in chemical protective outfits and gas masks. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, cited Dr Robin Black, Head of the Detection Laboratory at Porton Down, writing for the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2016, that: ‘No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.’ Murray states that the only real evidence for the existence of Novichok comes from a dissident Russian chemist who defected to the US and who claimed that a Novichok ‘can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilisers and pesticides’. Murray says that, as ambassador, he visited the site in Nukus, Uzbekistan where the Novichok would have been made by the Russian scientist and that it was dismantled, made safe and all the chemical stocks destroyed and equipment removed by the US.

If Novichok was used in Salisbury it is an organophosphate compound that can be made from ‘common, unrestricted and undetectable industrial and agricultural chemicals available worldwide’ (Georgina Downs Counterpunch 19 March 2018). Conceding to demands that international procedures be followed, the British government allowed OPCW experts to collect samples of the toxin on 19 March.

Sheer hypocrisy

For the British government to condemn the attempted extra-territorial, extra-judicial killing of people in Britain with chemical or biological weapons is hypocrisy. The British ruling class has a history of poisoning people in foreign lands. In 1763 Lord Amherst welcomed the availability of smallpox infested blankets to give to the rebellious native North American people: ‘Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among disaffected tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.’ Amherst regretted that a ‘scheme for hunting them down by dogs could not take effect’ because England ‘is at too great a distance to think of that, at present’. Amherst was subsequently made Commander-in-Chief of British Forces. In 1919, Winston Churchill, as Secretary of State for War, and the Royal Air Force, used poison gas on Bolshevik soldiers in 1919 and Churchill sanctioned the use of gas against the ‘disaffected tribes’ of Kurds in Iraq.

Simon Jenkins, in The Guardian (9 March 2018), compared British drone killings of British citizens in Syria with the alleged attempted killings in Salisbury: ‘No trial preceded these executions of British citizens on foreign soil. They died by executive action for being a threat to national security. If we assume someone in Moscow took the same view of Russian spy Sergei Skripal, what is the difference?’ Jenkins cites Gavin Williamson advocating drone killing of ‘all’ British citizens on the opposing side in Middle Eastern wars.

The British state is responsible for killing on a mass scale: in the recent period British military drones have been used in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Since Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen in March 2015, Britain has licensed over £4.6bn worth of arms sales to the Saudis. Since August 2014 Britain has licensed £415m worth of arms sales to Turkey with which it wages war on the Kurds.

British companies are among those that sold the ingredients for nerve gas to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with which it killed 5,000 Kurds at Halabja in March 1988. When the Financial Times ran articles exposing what Saddam’s regime was doing, Prime Minister Thatcher wrote to the paper complaining that Edward Mortimer’s articles were damaging British business prospects.

Between 2004 and 2010 British companies sold Syria the ingredients for producing sarin (‘Chemical weapons: truth and lies’ FRFI 235 October/November 2013). Presumably attempting to conceal Britain’s possession of chemical weapons, Porton Down is now characterised as a medical research facility (Scientists for Global Responsibility). Porton Down is eight miles from the site of the Salisbury attack.

Consequential to the poisoning, Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomats, suspended high level contacts with the Russian government, stopped top officials attending the World Cup in Russia this summer and threatened Russian oligarchs who stash money in London property and banks. Russia responded by expelling 23 British diplomats, ordering the British Council to stop activities in the country and revoking permission for Britain to open a consulate in St Petersburg.

However, GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence and security headquarters, reported that it was preparing for cyber-war with Russia and said that Russia was attacking Britain’s infrastructure with computer viruses and malware. In mid-March the British Army sent troops to Estonia and Poland to join NATO’s ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’, described as ‘intended to deter Russian aggression’. This is one of the biggest NATO deployments to Eastern Europe in decades. Later this year, RAF Typhoon jets will be sent to Romania to patrol the Black Sea on Russia’s border. In January, US Defence Secretary James Mattis announced: ‘Great power competition – not terrorism – is now the primary focus of US national security.’ We have been warned.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 263 April/May 2018


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