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Russia’s Clandestine Chemical Weapons Programme: The Bellingcat Exposure

Tom Burge
Commentary, 3 December 2020
Russia, UK, National Security, Resilience
Findings by the Bellingcat investigative group are a reminder of the power of open source research in enhancing deterrence posture.

The headlines made for a grim sense of déjà vu: ‘Watchdog confirms nerve agent used in Navalny poisoning’; ‘Chemical weapons body confirms Novichok’; ‘Navalny claims Russian authorities poisoned him’. After the Salisbury incident in 2018, the bleak spectre of a second nerve agent attack.  

And just as familiar was the Kremlin’s wall of denial: slander against governments and international organisations – those calling for accountability – with a further attempt at character assassination reserved for Alexei Navalny himself.

Of course, the Navalny case was different to the Salisbury incident: a Russian citizen poisoned on Russian soil and thankfully still alive after the intervention of Germany’s health services. No innocent bystanders were caught in the attack. Yet Navalny’s ordeal was still appalling. A sense of outrage characterised the international response, culminating recently in UK and EU sanctions against senior Russian officials and a research facility in Moscow. As with Salisbury, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was on hand to provide independent verification of the chemical used – a Novichok nerve agent. As with Salisbury, reference to the provenance of this illegal weapon seemed an unmentionable subject in Russian state media.  

The Evidence

In an era of misinformation and ‘disposable’ media, democracies have struggled to promote evidence-based messaging. The endeavour is hindered by a broader decline in public confidence, with populations less willing to trust the word of government. Cue the rise of open source analysts: independent actors brought to prominence by high-profile investigations, their assessments drawn from unclassified data. Given Navalny’s talent for investigative journalism, it seems fitting that public information should aid scrutiny of his attackers.      

After the announcement of sanctions in October, the investigative organisation Bellingcat published a new investigation on chemical weapons and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Bellingcat is known for its previous investigations on Russia’s international conduct, including the downing of the Malaysian Airlines’ MH17 commercial flight over the territory of Ukraine in 2014 and later work which revealed the identities of the Salisbury poisoners.   

Undertaken as a collaborative project with Der Spiegel, The Insider and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Bellingcat’s latest investigation provides an account of how Russia has sustained clandestine Novichok development over the past decade. Bellingcat’s evidence points to collaboration between the GRU’s Military Unit 29155 – a notorious entity associated with the Salisbury attack – and a smattering of Russian scientific organisations. In this way, the investigation links GRU personnel responsible for Novichok attacks with scientists implicated in developing the deadly substance.   

Bellingcat notes that two Russian scientific organisations featured in its investigation have so far escaped the new sanctions – these are the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Institute for Experimental Military Medicine, located in St Petersburg, and Moscow’s Scientific Centre Signal. Bellingcat credits these entities with a leading role in secret Novichok development since 2010.

The Messenger and the Message

One consequence of such revelations is the potential for greater accountability, with open sources harnessed to aid government responses after egregious events. In the UK and the EU, punitive response options – including sanctions – are based on the provision of useable evidence. The use of sensitive intelligence to support such action is notoriously difficult. States with the means to gather intelligence are often loathe to release it, while multilateral organisations may not have the capacity to collect the data themselves. This means that accessible information derived from open sources – the kind uncovered by Bellingcat – could fill a gap. Measures to deter a repeat of the Navalny poisoning, for example, could be taken further, with open source information used to make the case. 

A further consequence of open source investigations is the credibility of the argument. All too often, democratic governments seeking to attribute responsibility by releasing some of the information they possess are confronted with disinformation campaigns. After the 2018 Skripal attack, for instance, experts at Kings College London credited Russia’s notorious RT and Sputnik media outlets with advancing or airing no less than 138 ‘separate and contradictory’ narratives on Salisbury, intended to deflect from identifying the real culprits. Much of this pushback – and the support it can garner – is based on the premise that Western governments cannot be trusted – ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ is a damaging refrain thrust against evidence produced by governments.

Unaffiliated analysts are harder to smear – the argument is taken up by independent investigators outside the realm of government. Reputable analysts will cite their sources and point to where information comes from. Since the data is available in the public domain – even if it is hard to come by – audiences can ‘fact check’ for themselves. This peer review process is reinforced by the diffuse nature of open source investigations, with analysts working around the world to build a consensus view of the evidence. When this tallies with an emerging verdict from governments or international organisations – witness Bellingcat’s corroboration of UK and OPCW findings – the case becomes stronger.          

Impact

After the attack on Navalny, we do not know whether Bellingcat’s investigation will presage further measures from the EU or others. What is clear is the discomfort felt by those exposed to such scrutiny. Make no mistake: greater accountability poses a threat to hostile actors. In a telling response to open source findings from 2018, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has sought to tarnish Bellingcat by accusing the entity of acting as a mouthpiece for Western intelligence services. In the wake of Bellingcat’s latest release, Russia has continued to deny all wrongdoing – even as the evidence piles up.   

When investigators attract this level of ire, they are usually doing a good job. Democratic states would do well to note the possibilities for improved deterrence. In the modern era, a ‘hostile environment’ against malign behaviour should include media plurality and a vibrant sector of independent investigators, making good use of abundant open source material. Governments, too, will continue to play a role in attributing responsibility and holding to account those who flout international norms. Actors intent on destabilising behaviour – often less democratic, more repressive and unaccustomed to scrutiny – may balk at the prospect of exposure.

This deterrence is improved when the scrutiny comes not only from governments but from independent analysts. Boasting well-informed, evidenced judgements and diligent personnel, these investigations are not easily dismissed.

Tom Burge leads on Modern Deterrence for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI, Her Majesty’s Government, or any other institution

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of New Africa/Adobe Stock

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