Geopolitical manoeuvring behind Skripal

On 4 April the Executive Council (EC) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet in a special session. Russia called the extraordinary meeting. It has been a month now since former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been exposed to a nerve agent in Salisbury. The United Kingdom (UK) government identified it as a member of the ‘Novichok’ family, once researched and developed by the Soviet Union. Russia is believed to have continued the programme at least during the first years after the breakup of the USSR. It has never come clear on the nature of the programme or identified the agents’ characteristics. As no other country has ever been associated with the Novichok family of agents, London’s finger-pointing at Moscow was not difficult.

War of loud words

Since the assassination attempt a war of loud words has erupted. The UK has continued with its investigation and called in the OPCW’s expertise with a view of validating its analyses of the nerve agent. By the latest indications, the results from the OPCW-certified laboratories will not be available before the middle of this month.

Meanwhile, London also launched a diplomatic offensive to isolate Russia internationally (for an overview, see the dedicated UK government web page), which so far has ended with tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomatic staff. The rhetoric strayed off course. The assassination attempt got linked to similar incidents over the past years and decades, Russia’s actions in its near-abroad and Syria, its cyber campaigns against the institutions of Western democracy, and the country’s more assertive stance against Western interests, particularly those of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). And, of course, the post-penultimate British schoolboy’s meme had to be called forth for domestic consumption: a mention of Nazi Germany.

Battle royale for the internet’s heart and minds

The British government’s (quite necessary) quietness about the investigation, the dearth of factual information beyond some generalities, and the distraction-causing verbal digressions into unrelated issue areas presented Russia with an open playing field. It was an opportunity it could not, and did not ignore.

Beyond the stacks of concealing black smoke and initial ridicule spouted by the government-sponsored international media and its diplomatic representatives to the UK, OPCW and EU, Moscow stayed much more focussed on the Skripal case. It was testing messages fast, discarding the ones failing to gain immediate traction and pursuing those that got picked up. Together, they addressed several issues simultaneously to drown out or cast doubt over any possible counterargument. That Russian officials or media contradicted themselves or seemingly confessed to total ignorance about past chemical warfare programmes did not matter. Speed was of the essence to avoid a coherent ripostes.

So, they challenged the notion that Russia was the sole originator of Novichok agents; they denied that there had ever been a Novichok programme; they suggested that the agent came form the British chemical defence laboratories at Porton Down or from similar facilities in other European countries; they questioned the OPCW’s legitimacy in the investigation while embracing the procedures foreseen in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) to discuss the matter; etc. They upbraided the UK government for not releasing details about the nerve agent while the investigation is going on. And then Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proffered motive for the British using a Novichok agent against the Skripal family: covering up difficulties over Brexit.

However ludicrous some of the arguments, Moscow ultimately turned the tables on London. Russia now portrays itself as the victim of the attack because the UK was unable to guarantee the safety and security of its citizens, in addition to which it now refuses Russian consular access to Yulia. And exploiting both British silence on the heart of the matter and the waiting period for the OPCW test results, it called for an special session of the OPCW EC after having publicly released two sets of questions (1st set; 2nd set), some of which it could use to initiate the clarification process under CWC Article IX, 2. Quite a few of these questions Moscow has field-tested via its global megaphone. (A subset of questions Russia addressed to the French government too.)

Will Britain’s hand be forced?

How will the EC meeting tomorrow pan out? Difficult to say, but if the debates over Syria’s chemical weapon (CW) use offer any guidance, then the following broad lines may re-establish themselves: the Western countries will decry the violation of the CWC and seek justice; Russia will play out a geopolitical strategy based on nominal pledges of cooperation to influence the votes of members of the Non-Aligned Movement who are wary of being caught up in a new hegemonic struggle between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has definitely laid the groundwork for triggering Article IX, 2. But will it trigger it tomorrow? This is far from certain. Moscow’s core aim may be to place some of the key questions it has already publicised into the formal record, thereby forcing the UK to respond. Any reluctance or avoidance by London would feed a certain narrative, at least until the OPCW submits its own laboratory findings to the UK. That narrative will anticipate those findings; at a minimum it will place the British government under great pressure to release the analyses to other OPCW members, including Russia. That pressure might also compel the British government to follow OPCW procedures rather than pursuing the case through other diplomatic means, in which case Moscow’s gambit may already be anticipating crucial votes further down that path. (For an overview of the Article IX process, see my earlier blog posting Novichok and the Chemical Weapons Convention.)

Remains one question in all this: Where is Washington? в кармане?