Comment // Politics

Keeping abreast of the Skripal case: Some recommended articles

So much has been written and said about the Skripal case in the past couple of weeks that a blog entry is called for to alert UK Column readers and viewers to a few of the more wide-angled pieces of which the public ought to be made more aware.

Establishment line and use of Syria as client state for Russian chemical weapons programme

The Times (paywall) — a Murdoch title now deliberately not made available to the peasantry because it is only meant to be an echo chamber and kite-flyer for the great and good — has carried an interview with Boris Volodarsky, an author and historian of Soviet and Russian defectors to the West who is too close to British intelligence to be regarded as impartial in his claims. I doubt that this much detail would be given in a freely-accessible newspaper intended for the masses.

The below excerpt (emphasis added) is compelling as background, particularly if one is inclined to believe that MI6 might have sought to entice the Syrian chemists to whom the Soviets outsourced their chemical weapons programme in the era when Novichoks are said to have been developed:

Skripal was not the only GRU [comment by Alex Thomson: military intelligence, Russia's most hands-on spy agency] officer residing in the West, but he was its most recent acquisition. After settling in Salisbury, he remained in regular contact with MI6, lecturing at Sandhurst and Fort Monckton, a secret-service training base outside Gosport, but also helping with issues where his experience and expertise were most needed, including Syria. And Syria may be the key to why he was poisoned earlier this month.

The Syrian government’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, better know by its French abbreviation, CERS, was established in 1971. Certainly by 1983, and likely earlier, the USSR and its satellites had started to deliver chemical weapons to the centre together with delivery systems for choking, blister, blood and nerve agents. In the early Nineties it was reported that CERS was producing sarin, VX and mustard gas, having received the expertise, technology and materials from Russia. Early in 1992, Russia and Syria signed an agreement whereby Russia undertook to deliver new types of chemical weapons to Damascus. Among them was the infamous Novichok series of nerve agents recently synthesized at the Russian State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology — and the very type of poison that was administered to Sergei Skripal in Salisbury three weeks ago.

In early September 2017, Reuters and several media outlets reported an Israeli attack on a military site in Syria’s Hama province. The air strike killed two soldiers and caused damage near the town of Masyaf, the official statement said. A report from Jerusalem specified that the air strike was on CERS, after Western intelligence reports had linked the target to Syria’s chemical weapons programme. Reports from Moscow mentioned that the CERS facility was guarded by Russian Spetsnaz, the GRU’s equivalent of the British SAS, and staffed by the Russian research scientists.

In his article in The Times earlier this month, Ben Macintyre noted that the inclusion of Skripal in the spy swap was an anomaly, since he was not an American “asset”. The CIA had agreed to include him in recognition, perhaps, of the high quality of material Britain had shared from the so-called Forthwith files. But it was not only the old files and achievements dating back to the late Nineties that made Skripal valuable to the West.

[Skripal] was also the only source who could provide British and American intelligence with reliable estimates of [comment by Alex Thomson: or, indeed, who could spill the beans on Western co-opting or spoofing of] the Russian GRU activities in Syria. Although he didn’t know specific people and current operations, he knew the system from the inside and had practical knowledge and experience like no one else. Russia, smarting from the loss of CERS, knew that with [Skripal] gone it would be much more difficult for the British and Americans to analyse intelligence on chemical weapons coming from sources in the field.

Pattern of gruesome deaths

Heidi Blake's six-parter of last summer on the string of Russian oligarchy-associated suspicious and bloodcurdling deaths in and around London since the early 2000s should not be missed. (For those less familiar with post-Soviet terminology, 'oligarchs' since President Putin's rise to power effectively means 'determined mafioso oppositionists in exile' as much as it means 'inexplicably wealthy industrialists'.)

Readers should not dismiss this investigation merely because it was written for the usually risible BuzzFeed News. The particular journalist who wrote this series is conscientious and endured very nasty opposition indeed while compiling her research for it. The only quibble that I would have with her material is where she postulates (or her editors made her postulate) Russian government culpability; the material itself is sound.

The widow of one of these men who died suspiciously, Scot Young (see the graphic embedded in each part of the series, which can be flipped between a spider's-web view and a chronology view), is a key supporter of the British Constitution Group. I am in possession of a 2013 letter of hers to Dame Lin Homer, the then Chief Executive of HM Revenue & Customs, which she (Michelle Young) is content to be referred to publicly, in which she sets out how HMRC conspired to make her then estranged, very well-paid husband (an accountant for some of these very oligarchs) appear penniless and in which apparent intelligence officers using false names interwove themselves with the Youngs' dealings with HMRC. Mr Young 'fell' to his fatal impalement the following year.

For a taste of the sheer complexity, myriad company names and double-dealing of anything which the Russian oligarchs have a bearing upon, see this article in The Hill, one of the best-regarded outlets reporting on Washington politics, on the Uranium One scandal.

China forced to ally more closely with Russia

Geopolitically, a very telling piece is an op-ed in the unofficial English-language party organ of the Communist Party of China, the Global Times, which with highly uncharacteristic bluntness lays into the British and Americans for their unconscionable and unprecedented conduct in the case. As if the point needed making any more strongly from Peking, the new Chinese Minister of Defence has laid it on with a trowel: the Americans [and British] should understand that their conduct has made strategic allies out of China and the Russian Federation, countries which in the normal course of events have always been uneasy bedfellows with wildly different worldviews.

Parallels with the 2006 Litvinenko case

Venturing further into contested territory, but still solid enough ground to be worth making viewers aware of, William Dunkerley (a published author on the Litvinenko case) wrote two years ago of how he found the retired French counter-terrorism gendarme Paul Barril credible when Barril told the world about an effective melding of Boris Berezovsky's war on the Kremlin with the operational objectives of the Russia desks (and higher-ups) at MI6 and the CIA. Barril can be heard in his own words (overdubbed in English) setting out his contention that an Italian named Mario Scaramella was Litvinenko's assassin. As Barril says in terms at 10:30, "Litvinenko was killed by the Chechens [in London] and Scaramella"; earlier in the interview, he has already stated that this concerned a falling-out over Berezovsky funding.

This was claimed by the reliable Global Research contemporaneously in 2006. Meanwhile, during the March 2018 hullabaloo over the Skripal case, Russian television viewers' jaws fell open when Litvinenko's father hugged the official culprit (Andrei Lugovoy) and named Alex Goldfarb as the man whom he suspected of having murdered his son. Goldfarb, who defected from the USSR to become a CIA asset, is a very contested figure.

Consular access

The Duran noted a week ago the same oddities which UK Column News has been reporting with regard to the speed of action of the neurotoxin which poisoned the Skripals. Particularly compelling in the Duran piece is the lengthy, and skilful, unpicking of the treaties and statutes which oblige Her Majesty's Government to grant the Russian Federation consular access to Yulia Skripal at the least (since she is a citizen of the Russian Federation only), and arguably also to Col. Sergei Skripal, a dual citizen. As I have remarked on air, this entitlement to consular access is sadly often infringed in practice, but it is the law.

Note also from the Duran piece that Mr Justice Williams of the High Court was clearly not buying the Official Solicitor's line that there was no way of contacting the Skripals' relatives in Russia to grant permission for blood samples to be taken from their ostensibly still-comatose bodies, and that in his written judgement he flagged up this unease by signalling that the Russian authorities needed to apprise themselves of the matter in timely fashion.

Speaking of these supposedly elusive relatives, Off-Guardian rightly castigates the Guardian's deceptive reporting (which is, of course, what Off-Guardian was recently and all too necessarily set up to do) of these family members in Russia.

How long was Yulia Skripal out cold for?

The intrepid Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, previously featured by 21st Century Wire and UK Column News for her unparalleled reporting (including from Syria during the relief of Aleppo) on the Pentagon's use of an airline enjoying Azerbaijani diplomatic immunity to ferry Eastern European arms to the edges of war zones, has tweeted the pertinent observation that someone accessed Yulia Skripal's social media account on the Russian-centred VKontakte network less than 72 hours after her hospitalisation, when she was supposedly going through the worst throes of her poisoning and not expected to recover. It is almost as if ham-fisted political spooks who were not actual Russia hands or Russian linguists had overlooked the fact that the Russians have their own social media sites.

More generally regarding the mainstream media's failure to do its job, The BlogMire has thirty pressing questions which the press ought to have been asking on the Skripal case.

Coincidental CBRN exercise

Some have been perturbed by the Ministry of Defence's announcement, made a month ago at the very time of the Skripal poisoning, that 40 Cdo of the Royal Marines had just spent three weeks on Salisbury Plain in a major CBRN exercise partly supervised by DSTL Porton Down. Nothing definitive can be said about the potential tie-over of this with the Skripal case, and I am certainly not seeking to implicate the Royal Marines in the Skripal case by pointing this odd coincidence out.

Britain's neighbours don't believe the HMG line

Rather unprecedentedly, both the Dublin newspaper of record, the Irish Times, and the Dutch conservative Christian newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad have given column inches to seasoned Kremlinologists to point out how illogical the British Government's claims in the Skripal case are. Both the Irish and Dutch conservative mainstream have traditionally clung very close to British assessments of the Russian threat and to official British assertions on Russia-handling.

Possible Cambridge Analytica angle

In a claim for which I have found as yet no corroboration, Dr Roger Cottrell writes in The London Economic that Col. Skripal was investigating Cambridge Analytica before he was attacked: "A source close to Skripal has said he was investigating the collusion between the Internet Research Agency, AIQ, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL." Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix' unconvincing and potentially misleading testimony to a Parliamentary Select Committee can be viewed here, where I have left a couple of comments pointing out a crucial timestamp and an observation. Note also timestamp 42:40, where the ringing of the division bell (summoning MPs to vote) appears greatly to fluster Mr Nix as he is at pains to emphasise that SCL is not at all the same entity as Cambridge Analytica.