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6 April 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Johnson, Corbyn and too many others are playing into Russia’s hands on the Skripal poisoning

We are losing at what are supposedly Britain’s oldest strengths: spycraft and media.

By James Ball

Talk to a police officer, and they’ll tell you most murders are nothing like those on TV. There’s no series of dramatic twists, the early acquitted suspect, the reveal just in time for the ad break – instead it’s the street knife fight that wasn’t meant to get so deadly, or the grim end of a long story of domestic abuse.

International relations generally works in much the same way: despite decades of paranoid conspiracy theories, the predictable answer tends to be the right one. And when it comes to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the prime suspect is nothing if not predictable.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, fingers pointed towards Russia, which had all three of the TV detective’s key watchwords: means, method and motive.

When it comes to means, London is the place in the world with the highest concentration of FSB (Russia’s intelligence agency, the successor to the KGB) agents in the world.

When it comes to method, not only was Russia the inventor and main developer of Novichok, but they have also previously poisoned former Russian agents on UK soil – killing former spy Alexander Litvenenko with the radioactive element polonium.

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As to motive, not only has the Russian government passed laws allowing for the killing of overseas defectors, but Russian officials and media outlets have repeated such warnings. Last year, BuzzFeed News found 14 suspicious deaths on UK soil which US intelligence agencies suspected of being tied to the Russian state.

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It is true that even without being privy to the insider knowledge of the UK’s intelligence agencies, it would not be unreasonable for one to suspect Russia’s involvement. It is also true, then, that through signals intelligence, human sources, and the ongoing investigation in Salisbury, the UK government – and its allies – has undoubtedly uncovered far more information on the attack.

It is on the basis of this information that foreign governments have shown their support to the UK and expelled suspected Russian spies. This includes those nations which have not always reflexively backed the UK – as with France and Germany, both of which sided with Russia over the US/ UK’s invasion in the 2003 Iraq War. This time, something has proven compelling to all of them.

And yet that’s not at all where the public debate is at: scratch the surface of social media and you’ll see no shortage of people casting doubts over whether Russia was responsible for the attacks. Many even go further, variously suggesting that the attack could be a false flag operation, a cover-up for an accidental release of chemicals from Porton Down (the UK’s military research plant), another country framing Russia, or even a bid to take the Cambridge Analytica/ Brexit story off front pages.

These conspiracy theories should largely be greeted with the contempt they deserve: anyone believing that Theresa May – who appears incapable of holding a snap election without losing her majority, or giving a conference speech that doesn’t degenerate into a clown show – could mastermind a sinister conspiracy is beyond help, as is anyone who listens to them too closely.

Far more dangerous are those who say there are “legitimate questions” to ask – partly because there are always gaps in any narrative, and none of us would want to suggest it’s not okay to question.

The problem here stems from the way in which Russia has become adept as exploiting our instinct towards fairness and healthy scepticism, to cast doubt over any event that ever happens.

When the MH17 passenger plane was shot down over Ukraine, Russia responded with a plethora of contradictory alternative theories – many of them patently ridiculous –  over who may have shot down the plane, and why, to distract from it being the mistake of a Russian-armed militia group. After this initial flurry, they then offered long lists of detailed (but irrelevant) questions, to give the well-meaning reason to wonder why they hadn’t been answered.

Russia is deploying exactly the same tactics in this instance: playing for time by trying to delay attribution as much as possible, this time by insisting the need to hear from multi-national bodies, while its outlets promote alternative theories as to who carried out the poisoning.

At a press conference in London on Thursday, Russia helpfully offered up a list of more than 20 painstakingly detailed questions, the main role of which was simply to suggest there are huge doubts around what happened. And once again, much of the media and other commentators took Russia’s bait, finding it reasonable to ask the questions a murderous kleptocracy wants asked.

Our politicians have made this easier. Despite the fury being thrown at Boris Johnson by many on the left this week, in the week after the poisoning Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC that Russia should be given a sample of the nerve agent so they could determine whether it was theirs (a comment later cleared up by others to suggest he meant giving it to the multi-national OPCW body).

This move played into Russia’s hands nearly as much as Boris Johnson’s idiotic and careless remarks – echoed in Foreign Office tweets – that the Porton Down lab had said they were certain the chemical had originated in Russia. That is not Porton Down’s role: their role is simply to identify the compound used, to help inform the assessment of the intelligence agencies.

The combination of these comments from Johnson and an over-excited media reaction to the laboratory’s first public remarks, meant that Russia was this week handed a huge propaganda victory – one sufficiently bad that, considering his extensive previous history of blunders, should, in any sane world, leave the Foreign Secretary’s job in doubt.

But the problem is bigger than Johnson and Corbyn, and bigger than a few conspiracists on the fringes. Russia’s tactics of “dismiss, distort, distract, dismay” is part of an information warfare strategy recognised by NATO. It is simply woeful that we have reached 2018 and the government (and media) are so under-prepared to deal with known tactics, and create the gaps for Russia to exploit. We are losing at what is meant to be Britain’s oldest strength: spycraft and media.

Russia has been caught standing with a bloody knife over a prone body. It has, nonetheless, managed to turn this into a six-part Scandi drama. We need to learn to keep it simpler.