Last month, a Russian ex-spy was poisoned along with his daughter in the English cathedral city of Salisbury. Following the incident, the UK government swiftly announced that Sergei and Yulia Skripal had been administered with a Russian-made nerve agent.
The Prime Minister stated that it was, “highly likely that Russia was responsible [for the attack],” after military scientists identified the poison as Novichok, a nerve agent developed in the USSR during the 1980s.
Yet recent reports have suggested that experts at Porton Down, the defence research laboratory that identified the toxin, are unable to confirm that Russia carried out the attack. The Foreign Office has since deleted a tweet indicating that Porton Down confirmed that the nerve agent was made in Russia.
Did the government act too hastily in pointing the finger at Russia?
The answer lies in the fact the Porton Down isn’t the only agency investigating the attempted assassination. The story surfaced following comments made by the head of the military lab, Gary Aitkenhead.
In an interview with Sky News, Mr Aitkenhead said, “we are able to identify it as Novichok, to identify that it was a military grade nerve agent. We have not verified the precise source.”
On the face of it, this appears as though the British intelligence establishment is backing down on the claim made by the Prime Minister. But the point that Aikenhead kept stressing was that data provided by Porton Down is merely a single piece of evidence in a wider investigation.
The scientists’ inability to confirm where this particular batch was made doesn’t invalidate the notion that Russia carried out the attack.
What we know is that this batch of Novichok was military grade, meaning that only a state could develop it. We also know that the man who was targeted was a British double agent, spying on Russia on behalf of the UK government. This, combined with the knowledge that Russia itself developed this kind of nerve agent, suggests at least a Russian connection.
It’s also worth thinking about why the attackers used this particular poison. If they had wanted to be inconspicuous, why choose a chemical weapon that can be traced? Why use a chemical weapon at all when you could frame an accident or a suicide? Using such a specific substance is clearly supposed to make a statement.
The fact is that Russia has carried out these kinds of attacks before. Much of the evidence that has been made public points in their direction, at least circumstantially. As it stands, the burden of proof lies heavily upon the Kremlin.
Cover image credit: Dennis Jarvis