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One element unites the handling of the chemical attacks by the Syrian regime against its own people and the Russian-perpetrated chemical attack in Salisbury early last month: the question of maintaining trust in the identification of the perpetrators in the face of Moscow’s relentless campaign of obfuscation.
Hours after the US, Britain and France struck Syrian chemical installations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to sow doubts by claiming that a laboratory based in the Swiss town of Spiez allegedly identified at Salisbury chemical substances which were supposedly not in Russian use.
That was, of course, complete false, as the Spiez laboratory immediately made clear. But the tactic of fomenting conspiracy theories is now Russia’s key objective, and Moscow’s target is to destroy trust in the evidence.
The release last week of a summary of an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) analysis of samples from Salisbury came at Downing Street’s explicit request and was an unusual gesture and was intended precisely to enhance trust. Nor is there any doubt that the report supports British and allied conclusions that a Novichok toxin was used.
Russian authorities continue to deny the existence of the Cold War-era programme that created Novichok agents, despite former Soviet CW researcher Vladimir Uglev confirming that his laboratory developed the agents
Novichok is a series of highly-advanced nerve toxins first synthesised by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The exotic chemicals are unlike other nerve agents such as VX or sarin created and used by the North Korean and Syrian regimes because Novichok agents are exceptionally difficult to manufacture, even at the state level, and have never been mobilised.
Additionally, the OPCW summary highlights the exceptional quality of the Novichok isolated directly from the Skripals’ bloodstreams. Unlike with medicines, purity is relatively less important with nerve agents because a lethal dose fits on the tip of a pin, and impurities may also kill the victim. Removing chemical contaminants is a complex and expensive endeavour.
The purity of the CW agent isolated by OPCW experts suggest a well-funded and experienced production operation that seeks perfection rather than crude lethality. In short, this is inconsistent with the signatures of terrorists and small CW state actors. To the best of our open-source knowledge, Russia is the only state to have experimented with Novichok compounds.
Russian authorities continue to deny the existence of the Cold War-era programme that created Novichok agents, despite former Soviet CW researcher Vladimir Uglev confirming that his laboratory developed the agents. Uglev and other Soviet scientists claim that the Novichok programme was originally designed specifically to sidestep regulations imposed by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and be undetectable by NATO.
Some have questioned the benefits of accusing Russia of violating international conventions and agreements. By focusing on the exotic mechanism of the attack, the Putin regime could obfuscate and muddle the facts of the case: an attempted assassination on foreign soil.
Indeed, Russian authorities pounced on the blundered retraction of a tweet by the Foreign Office reporting that UK scientists confirmed the Russian source of the CW agent.
As the Russian Federation undoubtedly knew, Porton Down is exclusively a scientific organisation; it is tasked with identifying and researching pathogens and toxins and does not conduct criminal investigations identifying culprits.
Russia has avoided the evidence, accusing the US or the UK of carrying out the attack and of orchestrating an anti-Moscow conspiracy
So, expecting Porton to identify the culprit is like expecting a surgeon, who can tell whether a patient was shot by a bullet, to also identify who fired the bullet; the latter task falls to other agencies, as was the case in Salisbury.
Still, and regardless of this clear delineation of duty and remit, the miscommunication of Porton’s scientific findings played well into Russian efforts to throw doubt and declare the entire investigation biased and inconclusive, another reminder that, when it comes to such a battle, both the facts and the way they are presented matters.
Although OPCW labs similarly lack the mandate or ability to attribute the attack to any actor, their independent report cuts through the Russian smoke screen. OPCW reports are circulated to all 192 CWC member nations, meaning Russia will be able to review the evidence.
So far, the Russia has avoided the evidence, accusing the US or the UK of carrying out the attack and of orchestrating an anti-Moscow conspiracy.
Expecting Porton Down to identify the culprit is like expecting a surgeon, who can tell whether a patient was shot by a bullet, to also identify who fired the bullet
Salisbury and the Syrian atrocities at Douma are not mutually exclusive tragedies despite differences in scope and magnitude. They both represent violations of the CWC, which outlaws any use of CW agents. And they both require constant pressure and engagement with the international community.
To this end, Britain has demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, in line with Article XII of the CWC requiring ‘cases of particular gravity’ to be elevated to the UN General Assembly and Security Council.
Although this is legally necessary, the UNSC has repeatedly proved impotent in addressing CWC violations by UN member states, notably by the Syrian regime. Russia will veto any resolution demanding international investigation, inspection, or prosecution of their alleged involvement in this attack, satisfying the CWC legal requirement to raise a debate on the issue and officially exonerating Russia.
Likewise, because the UN charter does not delegate legal authority to OPCW, there is no route for the organisation to investigate the issue further unless invited to Russia to conduct inspections. If the UK aims to prevent future CW use on its soil, Whitehall must be prepared to push beyond these traditional boundaries.
The UK is pushing for an unprecedented public release of the unredacted executive summary of the OPCW report. It is unclear how can Britain or the OPCW leverage these findings to demand answers and affect Moscow’s behaviour.
By mobilising so many of its allies, Whitehall has spent valuable capital in raising the Skripal case to the international stage. But the battle to maintain trust and to reject Russian obfuscation is only just beginning.
Ryan Henrici is a Marshall Scholar at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine working on infectious disease, emerging technologies, and biosecurity.
Banner Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. It wasn't us, guv. Courtesy of Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.