Conclusive evidence of the Russian state’s guilt in the Skripal case is lacking — and that's important

It is difficult to obtain 100% proof in cases such as the Sergey Skripal poisoning. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't demand as much evidence — from our politicians and law enforcement — as possible.  

David Morrison
2 April 2018

The restaurant in Salisbury near to where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was found critically ill by exposure to a nerve agent. (c) Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The UK Government has not presented conclusive evidence that the nerve agent used in the attempted assassinations of Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia originated in Russia, let alone that the Russian state was responsible for these crimes.

The Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons on 12 March 2018 said:

“It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. 

“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the Government have concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.” 

That is a heroic effort to connect the Russian state with the attempted assassinations, but it is almost entirely devoid of facts that do so.

To make a connection, the ideal scenario would have been that, having carried out the relevant analysis on the nerve agent used, Porton Down scientists were able to state unequivocally that it was manufactured in Russia. Clearly, they were not able to do so, otherwise it would have been at the heart of the Prime Minister’s message to the House of Commons on 12 March.

Think of the difference it would have made to her case that Russia was responsible if she had been had been able to say:

“Our world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down have established that the agent used was produced in Russia”.

Instead, in trying to prove the Russian state responsible, the Prime Minister had to make do with saying that the nerve agent used was “of a type developed by Russia” and “Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so”. That raises the possibility that Russia may have been the source of the nerve agent, but it is a long way off from proof.

And it certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility of another state (or even a non-state entity) being responsible for its manufacture. In her statement, the Prime Minister did not attempt to argue that no state other than Russia is capable of manufacturing the agent used in Salisbury.

On 20 March, the New Scientist said that “several countries could have made the nerve agent used in the chemical attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal”. It also said that “other countries legally created Novichok for testing purposes after its existence was revealed in 1992 and a production method has even been published” by Iranian scientists in 2016. The creation of Novichok for testing purposes is legal under the Chemical Weapons Convention, partly so that agents can be identified in situations like Salisbury. The UK may be one of those countries: in an interview with Deutsche Welle on 20 March, Boris Johnson was asked if Porton Down possesses samples of Novichok: he replied “they do”. 

Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has commented extensively on the fallout from the events in Salisbury on 4 March, wrote the following on 16 March: 

“I have now received confirmation from a well-placed FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office] 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.” 

Russia declared guilty 

On 14 March, the Prime Minister returned to the House of Commons to declare Russia guilty of the attempted assassinations and to pronounce sentence (which was the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and a range of other measures). 

On that occasion, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tried to do his job as Leader of the Opposition and seek information about the progress of the investigation. In particular, he asked the Prime Minister if tests had been done on the nerve agent at Porton Down to try to identify its origin and those responsible:

“Has high-resolution trace analysis been run on a sample of the nerve agent, and has that revealed any evidence as to the location of its production or the identity of its perpetrators?” 

An answer to that question would have revealed that Porton Down scientists were unable to establish the location of the agent’s production. Understandably, the Prime Minister didn’t answer that question (and others from him), since having already declared Russia guilty exploring the evidence for its guilt was redundant. Instead, she rounded on him for failing to endorse wholeheartedly the guilty verdict she had declared.

OPCW verifies destruction of Russia's chemical weapons programme 

On 27 September 2017, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that it had verified the completion of the destruction of Russia's chemical weapons programme. Understandably, the Prime Minister didn’t mention this relevant fact in her indictment of Russia in the House of Commons on 12 March. 

Of course, this doesn’t absolutely exclude the possibility that Russia continues to hold chemical weapons stocks and/or production facilities. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 18 March Boris Johnson claimed just that, saying: 

“We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purpose of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok.” 

And the Prime Minister told the House of Commons something similar on 26 March. But neither gave any evidence. 

The OPCW is the international body charged with the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The Convention, which came into force on 29 April 1997, bans the acquisition and use of chemical weapons and requires state parties to destroy existing stocks and production facilities upon joining. 

However, state parties are allowed to produce small quantities of chemical agents, in order to develop countermeasures to them (see UK Government document The Truth About Porton Down). If Boris Johnson is to be believed, Porton Down possesses samples of Novichok. 

States that joined prior to the Convention coming into force were allowed 10 years to complete the destruction of their stocks and production facilities. Both the US and Russia were unable to fulfil that requirement and had to be given additional time to complete the destruction. US is now the only state party to the Convention that still hasn’t fulfilled that requirement – it is scheduled to do so in 2023. All the states in the world apart from Egypt, Israel, North Korea and South Sudan are now parties to the Convention.

On 27 September 2017, the OPCW Director-General, Ahmet Üzümcü, congratulated Russia in the following terms:

“The completion of the verified destruction of Russia's chemical weapons programme is a major milestone in the achievement of the goals of the Chemical Weapons Convention. I congratulate Russia and I commend all of their experts who were involved for their professionalism and dedication…”

Addressing a conference of OPCW state parties in November 2017, the UK Ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, praised Director-General Üzümcü and listed his achievements during the year. These included: “the completion of the verified destruction of Russia’s declared chemical weapons programme.”

He didn’t qualify this achievement in any way: he didn’t suggest that Russia had an undeclared Novichok programme. The UK was, apparently, content that all of Russia’s chemical weapons stocks and production facilities had been eliminated. It is strange that a few months later the UK is claiming that Russia is “creating and stockpiling Novichok” and “investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purpose of assassination”. 

OPCW state parties “shall consult and cooperate”

Article IX.1 of the Chemical Weapons Convention lays down that state parties to the Convention “shall consult and cooperate, directly among themselves, or through the Organization (OPCW) … on any matter which may be raised relating to the object and purpose … of this Convention”. 

Article IX.2 stipulates that state parties “should, whenever possible, 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 this Convention”. A request for information from one state to another should be answered appropriately “as soon as possible, but in any case not later than 10 days after the request”. 

The attempted assassination of Sergey Skripal and daughter certainly caused “doubt about compliance with the Convention”. Under Article IX of the Convention, it was the clear duty of the UK to co-operate with other state parties including Russia (and the OPCW) to investigate this matter.

Instead, in the House of Commons on 12 March, the Prime Minister declared that the Russian state was responsible – in her words: 

“There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

By the time she spoke, the Russian ambassador had been summoned to the Foreign Office and asked “to explain which of the two possibilities it is and to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter” (in her words). And he was told “that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow”.

That procedure was not designed to elicit information from a fellow state party to the Convention, information which might throw light on the origin of the nerve agent used in Salisbury and who used it. On the contrary, it was an ultimatum requiring the Russian state to plead guilty, not merely to the attempted assassinations, but also to having a Novichok production programme. Understandably, Russia refused to respond. 

This refusal has been interpreted by the UK government and others as evidence of guilt. In fact, unlike the UK, Russia has tried to act in accordance with its obligations under Article IX.2, offering to respond within 10 days to any UK request for information. However, the UK has not taken up this offer and it has also refused to supply Russia with a sample of the nerve agent used in the attack for testing by Russian experts (see Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs document dated 21 March). The Russian Embassy requested access to Julia Skripal, who is a Russian citizen, but that was also refused. 

UK seeks OPCW technical assistance

After declaring the Russian state guilty without any independent input, the UK did eventually seek technical assistance from the OPCW. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 12 March that “we are working with the police to enable the OPCW to independently verify our analysis”. 

Technical experts from the OPCW are in Salisbury at the time of writing (26 March). Court permission has been obtained for blood samples to be taken from Sergei and Yulia Skripal. This was necessary because both are unable to give permission themselves. According to the court judgement, the OPCW technical experts intend (a) to undertake their own analysis of the freshly taken blood samples for evidence of nerve agents and (b) to retest the samples already analysed by Porton Down scientists. These had originally “tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent”, according to the judgement. 

What motivated Putin to do it?

On 16 March, Boris Johnson declared that it was "overwhelmingly likely" that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the attack against Sergei Skripal. But what motivated Putin to do it? To that question, the Foreign Secretary gave no answer.

At the time of the attack, a presidential election, in which he was expected to have an overwhelming victory, was imminent; in a few months’ time, Russia was going to host the World Cup and he would have the honour of presenting the Cup to the winning team. Why would he risk having this disrupted?

The attempted assassination of Sergey Skripal – a Russian who had spied for Britain using a nerve agent with Russian associations – was always going to be blamed on the Russian state and its president, whether or not the evidence warranted such a conclusion. Diplomatic and economic retaliation against Russia by Britain and its allies was inevitable. Disruption of the World Cup by, for example, the withdrawal of some of the competing countries was a possibility. At the time of writing (26 March), it looks as if the response is going to be largely diplomatic, but just imagine the reaction if more British citizens had been injured or even killed in the attack. 

If Putin ordered the attack, he must have been prepared to risk this kind of retaliation and worse. But what could he possibly hope to gain by doing so? It has been suggested that, in attempting to kill Sergei Skripal, he was acting on the principle that traitors should be executed. Proponents of this theory have quoted remarks he made in December 2010, which could be interpreted as a warning that those who betray the country would face lethal consequences: 

“Traitors will kick the bucket, believe me. … Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.” 

But why wait until the spring of 2018 before attempting to execute Sergei Skripal, when he was convicted for spying for Britain in 2006? And why, after 12 years of waiting, choose to do it two weeks before the presidential election and with the World Cup in the offing? Why not delay it to the autumn, for instance?

Also, why use a nerve gas with Russian associations in executing traitors or political opponents, which makes it easy for the finger to be pointed at Russia, whether the evidence justifies it or not? If a hand gun had been used to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March, most likely he would be dead (and his daughter would be alive). Most likely also, the UK would not have been able to pin the murder on Russia and get international support for diplomatic sanctions against Russia.

The attempted killing of Sergey Skripal has had negative consequences for President Putin and the Russian state — consequences, though mostly diplomatic to date, that were entirely predictable. Those who ordered the killing would have known that there would be negative consequences for President Putin and the Russian state. 

One could for forgiven for thinking that those who ordered the killing were opponents of President Putin.


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