Update on the Skripal incident

On the investigation

It is looking increasingly likely that the “novichok” nerve agent used in the assassination attempt was delivered, doubtless unwittingly, by Yulia Skripal, Sergei Skripal’s daughter. Yulia was picked up at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon, the day before Skripal and Yulia fell ill, by a friend of Skripal’s in an Isuzu pick-up truck. The truck was impounded by British authorities on Monday, the implication being that investigators are looking for traces of nerve agent in the truck. Also noteworthy is the fact that over two weeks have passed since the incident, and British authorities have yet to identify any suspects by name or ask for information based on physical descriptions. So they don’t appear to have anyone on CCTV who might have dispersed the agent.It seems likely that investigators figured out fairly early that the nerve agent was administered in Skripal’s home, where the hospitalized British police officer, DS Nick Bailey, was exposed. It’s also likely that investigators know what the device was that allowed Yulia to deliver the nerve agent without poisoning others.

A good deal has come out over the past week about novichok, including a particularly informative interview in The Bell with Vladimir Uglev, a scientist who contributed to the development of the nerve agent in the Soviet era. I doubt, however, that more information about novichok will change the key conclusion that the operation was almost certainly organized out of Russia and involved state actors. Where it matters relates to a different question, which is whether Russia still has an active chemical weapons program and is going to be investigated, and called out, by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). (My take is that there is no way Russia allows the OPCW to conduct site inspections that might conceivably produce evidence of stored nerve agents, let alone an active nerve agent program, but the possibility of an OPCW investigation will nonetheless become a political football in the ongoing Russia-West drama, and make a lasting US-Russia reset even more unlikely.)

One point from the Uglev interview is of relevance to the investigation, however, even if it merely confirms what investigators already knew. The ex-Soviet scientist made clear that there are ways to contain a lethal dose of the agent, transport it safely, and deliver it to a target.

Agents should be transported in a container suitable for combat use. It is likely that within this container the chemical agents were put on some kind of carrier (cotton balls, powder, ready-made poisonous elements). All of the container’s external surfaces must be covered in a degassing solution and wiped with a solvent. Therefore, the person who carried out the attack does not need to defend himself.

That may explain why it took investigators until Monday to zero in on the Isuzu. Yulia arrived on March 3, which means it was over two weeks before the pick-up was impounded. But it may be that investigators were confident that there wouldn’t be traces of the nerve agent in the pick-up, so they didn’t bother to impound it immediately. And a related observation: Yulia arrived from Moscow on an Aeroflot flight, which means British investigators won’t have a meaningful opportunity to inspect the plane. But again, that probably doesn’t make any difference because, unlike with the polonium-210 used in the Litvinenko assassination, investigators won’t be able to find any trace of it on its way into Britain.

It seems likely, then, that the novichok arrived in a small container and was dispersed when Skripal or his daughter took some action, like opening a present at home. If so, the present may have come from Yulia, in which case the organizers would have had to have access to it, and either altered it or switched it out. It seems more likely, however, that it came from a friend or acquaintance, given that it probably required a sophisticated dispersal mechanism that worked when, and only when, Skripal was present. Moreover, the perpetrators probably wouldn’t have known in advance that Yulia was going to give her father, say, a bottle of brandy, talcum powder, or cologne, which they could then have altered or switched out (although that is certainly possible).

Regardless, the key witness in the investigation at this point is Yulia, who reportedly remains in a coma and in critical condition. It is possible, of course, that authorities are not being entirely forthcoming about her condition, in which case she may already have answered questions. But it’s also possible that she hasn’t, and won’t ever, answer any questions, let alone testify under oath in a deposition or at trial, as suggested by the following statement by Ugel in his interview:

If Skripal and his daughter received a lethal dose of B-1976, C-1976, or D-1980, then, most likely, they will suffer the same fate as earlier victims. There is no antidote to these agents. I can say with nearly 100% certainty that if Skripal and his daughter are taken off of life support, they will die, although they are now only technically alive.

Even if Yulia recovers and answers questions, it’s unlikely she’ll provide investigators with information that changes what we already know. For example, if she reports that the delivery mechanism was a present from a friend, investigators are very unlikely to get access to that person, and even less likely to get access to any other conspirators.

For me, then, the takeaway is that, while it is still possible that the nerve agent was delivered by Russian agents in the U.K., it’s more likely that it was brought into the country by Yulia. That in turn makes it even less likely that the Brits will identify the immediate perpetrators (unlike in the Litvinenko case) or arrest anyone.

If so, my guess is that six months or a year from now, despite a massive and costly investigation, we’ll know about as much as we know now. We will know that Skripal and his daughter were deliberately poisoned with a nerve agent; that almost certainly the nerve agent was developed in, and came from, Russia; that it is highly likely that the assassination attempt involved state agents; and that it is very likely the operation was ordered by the Kremlin. We will not, however, have direct evidence of who the organizers were, or who ordered the operation. To put the point differently, we will not have the kind of direct evidence that could be used in a British court to convict anyone of the crime (unlike in the Litvinenko case). We will be stuck assuming, based on circumstantial evidence and inference, that something of this complexity and consequence, one that used a rare and very sophisticated nerve agent, could not have taken place without Putin’s approval.

Note that I wrote unlikely, not certain. It’s possible that something breaks in Russia, or (even less likely) that British investigators produce some kind of smoking gun, which changes the conclusion that this was a Kremlin-approved wet op – say, evidence that it was a rogue intelligence operation or was organized by Kadyrov agents. But I think that’s very unlikely.

In this regard, the Skripal poisoning is similar to the Litvinenko assassination, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the uprising in the Donbas, the MH17 tragedy, and indeed other controversial events such as the use of chemical weapons in Syria. There will be a great deal of deliberate noise intended to confuse the signal, and lots of internet sturm und drang, but what objective, real-time observers are confident of within a matter of days, or even hours, after the event doesn’t change much — except to marginally reinforce that confidence.

On motive

Given that whoever organized the hit won’t be questioned by investigators, let alone tried, we are going to be left speculating as to motive.

That said, my take on this has changed a bit since my post from last week. As I wrote then, it’s very likely that the use of novichok was intended to be a signal. In the Litvinenko case, my guess at the time was that polonium-210 was used because the perpetrators didn’t think British investigators would know that Litvinenko had been murdered, let alone identify the murder weapon. It’s possible, but unlikely, that this is true with Skripal as well. As Maria Snegovaya pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, had Skripal, and only Skripal, died immediately, British authorities might have assumed that he died from natural causes, in which case they wouldn’t have tested for something as rare as a nerve agent. But that seems very unlikely given all the suspicions about Russian wet work in Britain, as well as the obvious risk that Yulia and others might be exposed. So it strikes me as much more likely that the organizers knew British investigators would conclude that Skripal had been poisoned with a nerve agent that came from Russia, and that almost certainly the Russian state was involved in the operation.

So the question is, who was intended the audience of the signal? Last week I wrote that it was likely a warning to actual or potential Russian double agents and defense specialists who have, or who might, cooperate with foreign intelligence services. But I also speculated that the intent might have been to demonstrate to Western governments that the Kremlin can make political life even more difficult for them than it already is, or to demonstrate Western weakness and aggravate Western disunity.

There are at least two other possibilities that have occurred to me since.

First, it’s possible that the audience was not only former or potential “traitors” but also the anti-Putin Russian émigré community in the West, particularly but not only those who cooperate with Western intelligence services or Western private investigators seeking kompromat against Russian public or private actors (for example, those who might help someone like Christopher Steele). It’s even possible that the target audience was Russians who might contemplate cooperating with the Mueller investigation.

Second, it’s possible that the audience was the Russian public.

In my view, the Russian regime today is deeply illiberal. But as most other observers emphasize, it is also authoritarian, albeit with important democratic characteristics (which is why some scholars characterize it as a “hybrid” regime). Indeed, my take is that it comes close to qualifying as an illiberal democracy. As the election on Sunday suggested, not only is Putin very popular, but a substantial majority of the Russian public supports the regime Putin has built. So we have a “legitimate” illiberal order, the legitimacy of which is demonstrated, and reinforced, by regular elections. To be sure, those elections aren’t “free and fair,” to the point where the “institutionalization of uncertainty” about who governs Russia is absent, which is why Russia qualifies as “authoritarian.” But I think it is closer to, for example, Hungary, which observers typically describe as paradigmatic of “illiberal democracy,” than most appreciate.

If the regime were simply illiberal authoritarian with democratic characteristics, it would not be so worrisome, at least for outsiders. What makes it dangerous is that it is also, increasingly, a “mobilizational” regime. (And this is true of many illiberal regime these days, whether democratic or authoritarian.)

Back in the 1960s, the political scientist David Apter wrote an influential book, The Politics of Modernization, in which he identified a particular approach to “modernization” taken by what he called “mobilization regimes.” These regimes, he argued, modernize by creating an intense and perpetual “atmosphere of crisis and attack.” The intent is to put the country onto what amounts to a war footing, mobilizing all available resources in pursuit of victory over some mortal enemy, whether it be relative backwardness, the evils of capitalism, enemies abroad, or whatever. The political scientist Ken Jowitt would later make a similar argument about what he called “charismatic Leninist parties,” with their “social combat tasks” of radical social transformation and rapid modernization from above.

My view is that the Russian regime has become a “mobilizational” one – not to the extent that, say, Stalinist Russia, was, but in the sense that it has come to rely an “atmosphere of crisis and attack” for legitimacy, and it creates and perpetuates that atmosphere by convincing the public that Russia is effectively under political attack by the West. In many respects, this claim has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There may have grounds for Russians to conclude that the West was trying to weaken and contain it before 2014, but that is much more the case since 2014 because Russian actions have provoked a very predictable response from the West. Western governments are pushing back against what they see as a revisionist Russia that is trying to do to the West precisely what Russia thinks the West is trying to do to it. The mobilizational component of Russian governance was present, but relatively muted, before 2014, but it is much more intense today, to the point where it is arguably critical to regime legitimacy. A majority of Russians is now convinced that any alternative to the current order, or to Putin as leader, would leave Russia vulnerable, once again, to enfeeblement, humiliation, and even destruction by a hostile West consumed by irrational “Russophobia.”

So to get back to the motive question, another possibility is that the Skripal operation was designed to reinforce the “atmosphere of crisis and attack” inside Russia, and possibly to do so right before last Sunday’s election. Another Russian wet operation in Britain was certain to be played up by the British media, and likewise certain to provoke a response from London and its Western allies. The Russian public could be expected to react by taking pleasure in seeing the state resisting Western pressure and weakening its adversaries, and Russia’s state media could use that reaction to play up the “Russophobia” of the West. That this may, in fact, have been a Kremlin motive was suggested by a Putin campaign official, who thanked Britain for contributing to Putin’s victory and added: “Yet again they started pressuring us just when we needed to mobilize. Every time Russia is accused of something groundlessly and without any proof, all the Russian people do is unite against the center of strength.”

To sum up, I see five possible motives for what was very likely a Russian intelligence operation authorized by the Kremlin.

  1. Punish past double agents and other Russian collaborators from the security services and defense sector, and deter future ones.
  2. Deter Russian émigrés from cooperating with Western intelligence services or private agencies looking for kompromat against Russian public or private actors.
  3. Demonstrate that the Kremlin is capable of making political life even more difficult for Western governments in myriad ways, including well-timed and more-or-less obvious assassinations on their territory.
  4. Demonstrate how little leverage Western governments have over the Kremlin, particularly those like Britain that benefit from Russian investment and business, and thereby aggravate Western disunity over how to respond to the Kremlin’s influence operations.
  5. Reinforce an “atmosphere of crisis and attack” within Russia so as to mobilize the Russian public for its “combat task” of defending Russia against an increasingly hostile West.

These motives are not exclusive – as with most any important political decision, it’s unlikely there was just one motive, and any intelligent decision-maker would consider the full range of effects of something like this.