Inside Story

Russia’s war on history

How a poison attack in an English cathedral city became an international diplomatic crisis

David Hayes 30 March 2018 3753 words

Rallied around: British prime minister Theresa May in Salisbury on 15 March, visiting the site of the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Updated 31 March 2018

Theresa May and Vladimir Putin share a macabre slice of luck. Both won an election just a week before a horrendous fire killed dozens of people, exposing failures in basic security procedures and provoking society-wide distress. Britain’s prime minister squeezed home in June last year just before the inferno in Grenfell Tower, a west London high-rise housing block; the Russian president’s tepid victory on 18 March was followed by the blaze in the Winter Cherry shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. A small timeshift might have unseated May and dented Putin’s hollow regime.

Survivors, they are now joined by another fatal event that might yet shape their respective political destinies.

Its site was mundane, the English cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. On the quiet Sunday afternoon of 4 March, two people slumped oddly across a bench were diagnosed as suffering from the effects of an organophosphorus nerve agent, later identified by the nearby Porton Down defence laboratory as part of a family termed Novichok (“newcomer”). The individuals were named as Sergei Skripal, a sixty-six-year-old former officer of Russia’s army intelligence directorate, or GRU, and his daughter Yulia, aged thirty-three. The next, unexpected report came on 29 March when the hospital reported that Yulia was responding well to treatment.

Skripal had defected to Britain while working in Spain, and went on to supply information to Britain’s MI6 when he returned to Moscow. Having been unmasked, he was tried, imprisoned and then, in 2010, exchanged (along with three other double agents) for a group of Russian sleepers in the United States. His liability to his old masters and usefulness to his new apparently over, he had lived openly if unobtrusively in Salisbury for seven years, now a British citizen, an affable neighbour and a pub regular. The period was tinged by loss: his wife and son were to die from different forms of cancer, the latter in Russia.

Media reaction to the Salisbury reports, instant and intense, had three strands: concern for the victims and public health (the first policeman quickly on the scene was also hospitalised), outrage at the nature of the attack, and finger-pointing that reached towards Moscow, 1650 miles away. Circumstantial evidence in that direction seemed compelling.

Seventeen putative enemies of the Russian state living in England, mostly out-of-favour business and their British associates, have died in suspicious circumstances since 2003. The latest is Nikolai Glushkov, former deputy director of Aeroflot, strangled in his London home on 12 March.

The highest-profile of these cases involved Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from Russia’s FSB security service, whose green tea was laced with radioactive polonium-210 at a Mayfair hotel in 2006. Four months earlier, Putin had passed a law sanctioning targeted assassinations abroad. Back in 2010 he had promised that traitors would “kick the bucket” or “choke on their thirty pieces of silver.” A criminal investigation and a belated judicial inquiry into Litvinenko’s death both identified an FSB spy, Andrei Lugovoi, as lead suspect. Safe in Moscow, and since 2007 a member of Russia’s Duma (parliament) for the far-right Liberal Democrats, Lugovoi suggested that Salisbury was “another provocation by British intelligence agencies.”

Just as the substance that killed Litvinenko after an agonising twenty days risked major contamination, so did the Novichok used in the assault on the Skripals. This is the first known example of chemical weapons being used in Europe since 1945. (Georgi Markov, the exiled Bulgarian writer whose leg was stabbed by the poisoned tip of an umbrella at a London Bridge bus stop in 1978, was a victim of KGB-delivered ricin, which is classed as biological.) That the aggression seemed to come from a state, rather than an IRA/Islamic State–style campaign of the kind Britain has been used to since the 1970s, gave it extra gravity. Any British government would be obliged to react firmly, even if the steps taken proved largely symbolic.

But what steps, and when? A considered pushback was surely needed. That meant a degree of coordination with Britain’s sometimes bruised partners, and taking into account Vladimir Putin’s inevitable use of any decision to bolster his defining Russia-as-victim narrative. With Theresa May’s most notable quality being caution bordering on paralysis, any response seemed likely to be delayed and carefully staged.

A strange week ensued. Its lack of action reinforced the broad view that Brexit had left Britain friendless. May, her standing recovered only a little from the depths of her election and Grenfell fiascos, was still seen as a leader only by default. At the same time, a certain sense of moral clarity was perceptible after Salisbury: this was an unambiguous test with the added attraction that it was not about Brexit and even offered a psychological escape — at least temporary — from the drudgery of that process.

The backdrop was a sobering police and counterterrorist investigation. While public communication was kept to a minimum, key sites in Salisbury (Skripal’s house, car, local restaurant, that bench) were cordoned off or shrouded in blue tarpaulins. By contrast, windy politicians competed for attention by barking extravagant insults or baroque advice at Russia. “Go away and shut up” was the neophyte defence secretary Gavin Williamson’s, making him a rival for foreign secretary Boris Johnson’s title of most retrograde leadership candidate.

Others in government rose to the situation. On 12 March, days after home secretary Amber Rudd, another contender, had charged Moscow with a “brazen and reckless act,” Theresa May took aim in the House of Commons. The Skripals “were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” she said in the first comprehensive statement on the crisis. The Russian state’s expertise and record of assassinations made its responsibility “highly likely,” either as a direct act or the result of having lost control of the agent. Which is it? Russia must answer by midnight on the following day, said May.

May’s lucidity was most unlike her blandness on Brexit’s eternal tangle. It also handed Moscow a new line and an opportunity to double-down on its reflexive contempt. The seasoned foreign minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the abrupt “ultimatum” and, citing procedures of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, demanded a sample of the agent for Moscow to analyse. More broadly, without hard evidence of culpability — or being able to reveal such for intelligence reasons — London could not prove its accusation. Russia would continue to exploit this, its best card.

When the deadline passed, London made its move, announcing the expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats. Moscow’s retaliation was tit for tat with a spiteful kick: the closure of both the St Petersburg consulate and British Council operations in Russia, the latter devoted to cultural promotion, language teaching and literary exchange. In between, Berlin, Paris and Washington joined London in condemning an “assault on UK sovereignty.”

The diplomatic pace was quickening. A meeting of European Union states on 22–23 March, in which its chair Donald Tusk pushed for a tough stance, sealed the soon-to-depart UK’s closer alignment with its neighbours. Mark Sedwill, Britain’s national security adviser, had prepared the ground by briefing EU and NATO members on Salisbury’s intelligence findings. Several of these states — Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Hungary and Bulgaria, for example — share historical, business, financial or political interests with Russia. So it is of some significance that nineteen EU members decided to expel Russian envoys, as well as five non-EU, Australia, Canada, the United States (which exceeded expectations by sending home sixty) and NATO headquarters. In total, 140 Russian diplomats will lose their posts or be denied accreditation.

Sergei Lavrov calls it “colossal blackmail” and blames Washington. The foreign ministry in Moscow dug in deeper on 28 March, saying an analysis of Salisbury “leads us to think of the possible involvement in it of the British intelligence services.” Without contrary evidence, it added, “we will consider that we are dealing with an attempt on the lives of our citizens as a result of a massive political provocation.”

Retaliation would be “guided by the principle of reciprocity,” says Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s suave spokesman. Konstantin Kosachev, foreign affairs chair in parliament’s upper house, also predicts symmetry in answering Western countries’ “unprecedentedly dirty and low game.” The process got underway on 30 March, with Britain ordered to withdraw more staff to equal Russia’s UK contingent.

While this slow drama was unfolding, Russia’s system and, to a less certain degree, its people delivered once more for Vladimir Putin. On the Sunday after Salisbury, his notional 76.67 per cent of the vote on a declared 67.5 per cent turnout guaranteed a further six years in the Kremlin. Completing it would enable him to celebrate a quarter century at the helm of the post-Soviet state, a run that began in 2000 with two four-year terms, then continued — constitutional rules limiting the head of state to two consecutive bites — with a spell as prime minister while his unthreatening protégé Dmitry Medvedev held the top job. When Putin returned in 2012, it was to a longer period in office. His position now consolidated, might the sixty-five-year-old vozhd (boss) seek to emulate his erstwhile strategic ally Xi Jinping and make the presidency an open-ended affair?

The Kemerovo fire and the eruption of discontent in its wake already cast a shadow. And a listless election had hinted at the gap between regime and people. As ever, the versatile tools of Potemkin democracy were on hand to make it look good. Before the vote, that meant the semblance of an actual campaign, including ritualistic media debates between the seven other approved candidates. (Alexei Navalny, a maverick opposition figure with a genuine following, was prevented by legal chicanery from running.) On the day, it meant polling-station treats to lure citizens, and away from prying eyes, in the Caucasus badlands for example, the darker arts of intimidation and ballot rigging.

The regime’s clever “political technologists” have alchemised the monochrome authoritarianism of old, with its crude propaganda and 99 per cent support for the wise leader, into multiple shades of grey. A “theatre performance directed by the Kremlin,” the analyst Igor Malashenko called the election. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen was scathing too: “the particular hell of Vladimir Putin’s retro-totalitarianism” is to create choice “only between soul-deadening options.”

The election date itself, anniversary of Putin’s formal ratification of Crimea’s sundering from Ukraine in 2014, marked the leadership’s intent. It also revealed the nationalism that — another parallel with Xi — is now the sole ideological potion in the system’s locker. Putin’s glitzy victory rally in Sevastopol climaxed with him leading the crowd in a chant of “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” The secret policeman’s moment of raucous populism over, it was back to the Kremlin and the brutal exercise of power.

The president’s rulership style is legitimised less through a democratic mandate than through his role as protector of Russia-as-fortress, besieged by a nefarious, encroaching West. In practice this defensive formula becomes the opposite. Under Putin and his circle, the Russian state’s core impulse is a commitment to wage an undeclared hybrid war against its adversaries.

Putin’s own tirade at the Munich security conference in 2007 was one marker, before military failures in the nonetheless victorious short war against Georgia in 2008 supplied momentum for expensive upgrades. General Valery Gerasimov’s influential article in 2013 provided doctrinal shape by outlining four aspects of future warfare: it is undeclared; coordinates kinetic and non-kinetic tools across a wide range; blurs distinctions between military and civilian instruments; and sees information spaces as well as physical spaces as the battlefield.

Russia’s past dozen years exemplify the doctrine. The massive three-week cyber-assault on tiny, democratic Estonia in 2007 — a landmark in this form of warfare — came three months after Putin’s Munich speech. The state’s repertoire includes further malware attacks, use of proxies and clandestine forces, implanting fake stories, buzzing Western defences, fomenting disputes, manipulating civic groups and allegedly (as in Montenegro) a coup attempt. Throughout all this, Russia’s well-resourced intelligence networks have been busy across Europe and beyond, as the coordinated banishment of its diplomats on 26–28 March would seem to confirm.

There is suspicion too that Russia continues secretly to develop a lethal strain of nerve agents. Boris Volodarsky, the former GRU operative and author of The KGB’s Poison Factory: From Lenin to Litvinenko, says that the state has also had a facility in Syria for many years, where the nerve agent used against the Skripals was made. Recalling that Russia’s former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, a significant figure in the 1980s and 90s, was poisoned in Ireland the day after Litvinenko’s ordeal, Volodarsky argues that Nikolai Glushkov’s murder, on the day of May’s Commons statement, fits the same pattern of attempted “distraction.”

This whole context, plus the precedents of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Perepilichnyy and company, would tend to suggest Salisbury as Moscow’s responsibility: shocking, yes, but in context unsurprising. Plausible as it may be, however, this understanding of the event, its background and implications was from the start widely contested. Russia’s diplomats and media outlets, and many British voices too, lost no time in throwing the kitchen sink and all contents over it.

The former led on indignant denial and insinuation with heavy dollops of sarcasm, the latter on diversion and conspiracism, though the respective talking-points had significant overlap. In a process heralded by the reaction to the numerous toxic gas attacks on rebel-held areas in Syria and the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014, what happened in Salisbury became the latest battleground where facts and evidence are treated as weapons in a war over reality itself.

In this sense, Salisbury’s most illuminating aspect has been as exhibit of the Russian state’s present demeanour. A few days’ concentrated exposure seems designed to bludgeon you into accepting — like Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File — that you are in an Albanian dungeon, rather than five minutes from Holloway Road watching the red buses go by.

The least of it was Russia’s disavowal of any chemical weapons program and the subject’s deflection onto others. Senior envoy Aleksandr Lukashevich said that the British, Americans, Czechs and Swedes had laboratories for nerve agents of the Novachok — but not us.

Maria Zakharova, the ever-outraged voice of the foreign ministry, added the Slovaks for good measure. Nikolai Kovalev, another Duma member and Putin’s predecessor as FSB director, suggested a Ukrainian link. Few utterances were free of the Soviet “provocation,” the shortest route to losing an argument (and a prime candidate for John Rentoul’s banned jargon and clichés). Putin himself insisted that Russia had destroyed all its chemical weapons, and — fresh from a ball-juggling video with the president of FIFA, soccer’s world body — made a possibly revealing denial of his own: “It’s complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup.” All this with a straight face. From such an innocent party, the aggression of the denials is striking: a reminder that the bully cries victim when stood up to.

But there was jollity too. Russia’s foreign ministry posted a #HighlyLikelyRussia hashtag. Kirill Kleimyonov, veteran host of the flagship Channel One news program Vremya, warned his viewers: “[Don’t] move to England. Something is not right there. Maybe it’s the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with a grave outcome. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows in industrial quantities.”

The mockery was also closer to home. Russia’s London embassy, long a twittersphere star for its facetious, image-laden jibes on Britain’s political scene, was in its element (“In the absence of evidence, we definitely need a Poirot in Salisbury!”). So too was RT, formerly Russia Today, a state-funded, pro-regime broadcasting group that holds open a door at its high-end Millbank Tower office for far leftists and rightists with reliably cynical, Kremlin-friendly — and at heart identical — views. Around half a million people tune in to its news programs each week, against 6.1 million to Sky’s and 10.4 million to the BBC’s. Its channels were avid to push Salisbury through the looking-glass. Even as actual reporters were out chasing an elusive story, its lines to take were pinging in every direction. In sum, these were: Russia blameless — could Britain be guilty? The Porton Down lab is only seven miles away — coincidence? Here are other suspects — what have they got to hide?

Moscow’s media drive was reinforced by a cavalcade of bots. There were also plenty of real bods with obsessions of their own. (Salisbury is an all too convenient diversion from domestic scandals or Brexit troubles; Israel was the true culprit.) This confluence of alt-reality tides once more recalls Ukraine and Syria, where Russia’s establishment media made common cause with self-styled “alternative,” “dissident,” or “truth seeking” voices in the West. The offline connections are extensive too, as shown by Anton Shekhovtsov’s book Russia and the Western Far Right and Péter Krekó and Lóránt Győri’s report Russia and the European Far Left.

The willed nature of this strategy from Moscow’s side is reflected in RT’s subtly appropriative self-description: “RT creates news with an edge for viewers who want to Question More. RT covers stories overlooked by the mainstream media, provides alternative perspectives on current affairs, and acquaints international audiences with a Russian viewpoint on major global events.” The tagline of the broadcasting hub Sputnik International, successor to RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia, with offices in London and Edinburgh — “Telling the Untold” — employs the same millennial schtick.

As with Russia’s cyber-disruption in foreign elections, these media outlets shrewdly customise their product to appeal to populist, radical, nativist, extremist or conspiracist tendencies in the West: anything that can sow confusion and division. In hybrid warfare, you always work at least one step ahead, including of the reaction. The professed astonishment of Canberra’s Russian embassy at “how easily the allies of Great Britain follow it blindly” is straight from the Gerasimov playbook.

Such bottomless cynicism differs from the Soviet-era use of “front” organisations in civil society, which for all the deception could be given a vestigial ideological sheen. If the appeal then was often to innocents and fools, today it is found in places where amoral relativism prevails.

The RT’s Afshin Rattansi, host there of Going Underground — Assange, Chomsky, Pilger, you get the picture — was himself a guest on the post-Salisbury edition of the BBC’s weekly hatefest Question Time, a distantly respectable show now, and indeed for years past, “[bordering] on hysterical” (as Jane Goodall observed in her rightfully scathing comments on Britain’s media discourse). As well as referring to Skripal and his daughter as “the two spies,” Rattansi stated that “Britain vetoed in the past few hours a UN Security Council resolution asking for an investigation into these atrocities in Wiltshire. Why did Britain veto that resolution?”

“Wiltshire,” not “Salisbury,” is a neatly insinuating touch, the point being that Porton Down is also in Wiltshire. This grain alone concentrates the entire RT desert. In fact, there was no such UNSC resolution on the day of the program, 15 March, and Britain last vetoed any such resolution in 1989. No one, neither anchor nor senior politicians on the panel, knew enough to challenge the claim. The previous day, the fine analyst Shashank Joshi had voiced the sentiment of many: “Depressing that for nearly a week we have had crank after crank on the BBC, when there are so many normal, talented and insightful Russian analysts and journalists who could articulate Russian perspectives, including UK-sceptic ones, on the crisis.”

It is hardly the most important thing when so much more is at stake, but to general surprise, Theresa May has been having a good crisis. Her poll ratings on the issue are positive; her visit to Salisbury featured eye-rubbing props: modest walkabout, flowers, baby, fist bump. (She left it late to visit Grenfell, and avoided meeting the public when she did.) Commentators note the tendency of people to rally round the leader of a wounded country, and ask whether May can build on this opportunity in tough domestic policy areas.

In any event, the Skripal investigation and Russia friction will persist, as will security threats from Islamic State and affiliates. On 28 March, the government published a fifty-page National Security Capability Review, whose new “fusion doctrine” proposes a framework unifying all branches of government in addressing vital security matters. The latter include coordinated intelligence, community engagement and “high-harm organised crime groups and corrupt elites.” It also puts the Skripal case in the context of a “well-established pattern of Russian State aggression.”

This review invites a belated focus on those Russia-related funds, properties and business practices that can be linked to Moscow’s kleptocracy. Some of the overnight super-rich of Russia’s 1990s since found a ready home in London’s hungry financial economy, using market access to create opaque structures without proper oversight or tax accountability. Governments indulgent of the revenues from a booming City of London have tended to ignore the many downsides. Transparency International estimates that a fifth of the “suspicious wealth” used to buy property in Britain, whose total is £4.4 billion (A$8 billion), is Russian in origin. More light is one essential remedy, new powers such as the “unexplained wealth orders” in the Criminal Finances Act of 2017, are another. British authorities’ neglect of the dark area where Russia’s political elite, security state and oligarchs meet is also part of the background to Salisbury.

What happened in that city, as attempted murder, is still understood only in pieces. As family tragedy, it is beyond outsiders’ grasp. As violation of international law, it is caught in Moscow’s wilderness of power. As diplomatic upheaval, it is unresolved. As British political crisis, it is the first for a while to hint that the light at the end of the tunnel might not, after all, be the oncoming train. As a story of authoritarian nihilism, it is, along with Ukraine and Syria, a test for citizens, media and democratic governments everywhere.

What will history say about the Great War, Georges Clemenceau was once asked. “It will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” Vladimir Putin’s Russia is intent on proving history wrong. The test is there. •