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30 Minutes in Salisbury

Salisbury is a nice old English town with a fine cathedral, only an hour and a half from London by train, but it doesn’t see many Russian tourists in wintertime. It’s not as cold as Moscow, but Russians tend to prefer Mediterranean destinations for holiday breaks in early March – unless, of course, they are planning to kill somebody.

The person of interest in Salisbury was Sergei Skripal, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service who started selling information to the British in the mid-1990s and was caught and jailed by the Russians in 2004. He was pardoned and allowed to go to Britain as part of a spy swap between Western countries and Russia in 2010, and he settled in Salisbury.

On 4 March of this year, Skripal and his daughter, who was visiting from Moscow, were found semi-conscious on a bench in the street in Salisbury and taken to a hospital. They spend weeks in intensive care, and it was determined that they had been poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that falls into the category of banned chemical weapons.

A policeman who went to Skripal’s house was also struck down by the poison, which had been sprayed on the handle of the front door, but he also recovered eventually. Three months later a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained leftover novichok was found in a charity bin in Salisbury, and a woman who sprayed it on her wrists died.

Britain accused Russia of sending assassins to kill Skripal and of using a banned weapon. It had no hard proof beyond the novichok, but Skripal was still helping Western intelligence agencies to understand Russian training and techniques, so Moscow had a motive.

Many people pointed out that it would have been foolish for Moscow to choose such a complicated method and risk exposure. Why didn’t it just hire a non-Russian hitman to do the job? But Moscow has done this sort of thing before: Russian agents, exotic substances, the lot.

Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the FSB secret service, got into trouble after his investigation into links between Russian mafia groups and his own organisation made him unpopular with Vladimir Putin, the FSB’s head. Litvinenko fled Russia for Britain after Putin took over the presidency in 2000.

Litvinenko remained a harsh critic of Putin, and in 2006 Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both former FSB agents, were sent to London to kill him. CCTV images showed the killers with Litvinenko at a London hotel where they dosed his tea with a tiny amount of polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance that would not normally be spotted because it does not emit gamma rays.

That was a reasonably competent operation, exposed only by bad luck. The 2018 operation was different. CCTV images, released only last week, showed Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, two 30-something Russian ‘fitness trainers’, making a brief trip to Salisbury on 3 March, presumably to do a reconnaissance, and back to the town on the 4th to do the dirty deed.

But then it got weird. Putin publicly urged the two men to go on TV, and last Thursday they appeared on RT, a Russian international news channel, to explain their brief trip (which gave them only 54 hours in England).

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said Petrov. They especially wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, said Boshirov: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock….” But they looked like heavies from Central Casting, and not at all like clock-tower enthusiasts. ‘Nekulturny’ (uncultured), as the Russians say.

Why did they only spend 30 minutes in Salisbury the first time? “It was cold.” (It was 10 degrees C warmer than Moscow.) Why did they take another train down to Salisbury the next day? “We really wanted to see Old Sarum and the cathedral.” (Old Sarum is an Iron-Age hill fort near Salisbury that was closed on 4 March.)

And on 4 March one of the CCTV cameras picked them up close to Skripal’s house and far from the cathedral or any other tourist attractions.

Is Russia deliberately trolling the British government to show its contempt? Probably not, because it has tried very hard to distance itself from the crime in other international venues. Did Putin’s regime put those two highly implausible ‘tourists’ on RT because it forgot that different standards of truth prevail elsewhere? Maybe.

But the likeliest answer is that these clumsy and self-defeating actions are indicators of how far the rot in the regime has gone. Elements of the system, like the armed forces (which have performed well in Syria), retain their efficiency and discipline, but corruption and incompetence rule elsewhere.

The Salisbury debacle would not have happened eighteen years ago, when Putin’s reign was new. It suggests that the regime is a lot closer to its end than its beginning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“A policeman…motive”)

Ukraine Again

Four years into a stalemated war, it takes something very big or very bizarre to get Ukraine back into the headlines. Even the news in April that the United States has started delivering lethal weapons (Javelin anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine didn’t do the trick, but the non-assassination of Arkady Babchenko last week did just fine.

Babchenko is a Russian journalist, turned into a critic of the Putin regime by his service in the Russian army in two wars in Chechnya, who took refuge in Ukraine last year after receiving death threats in Moscow. Last week it was reported that he had been gunned down outside his apartment in Kiev, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Groysman immediately blamed Russia.

There was footage of Babchenko’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood and being borne away in an ambulance. But the following day he walked on stage at a press conference to reveal that the assassination had been faked with the help of the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU.

‘Intelligence’ may not be quite the right word here, since this was an exceptionally stupid thing to do. The Putin regime condemned the episode as ‘fake news’, and will have much more credibility the next time it needs to deny killing a critic. The Ukrainian government’s reputation for telling the truth, never that high, is shot to pieces.

Why did the SBU organise this deception? According to Babchenko, the fake murder was planned for a month, even to the extent of having a make-up artist come to his apartment on the day of the ‘assassination’. “I was made up, the blood was natural, everything was for real,” he said.

It was allegedly part of a clever plan to trap a real Russian operative who was plotting Babchenko’s murder, but that doesn’t even make sense. Was the SBU expecting the ‘real Russian operative’ to break down in tears of frustration when he heard that somebody else had got to Babchenko first? This is really just more evidence of how dysfunctional the whole Ukrainian state is.

The three-month confrontation on the Euromaidan in Kiev in the winter of 2013-14, ending in a bloodbath that left 130 demonstrators dead, was supposed to be the revolution that finally freed Ukraine from rule by corrupt oligarchs backed by Moscow. It wasn’t.

The previous revolution had manifestly failed, with the pro-Moscow leader who had been rejected in the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, back in power through a free election in 2010. The 2014 revolution drove him out of the country entirely – but by overthrowing Moscow’s man in Kiev again, Ukrainians greatly alarmed Moscow.

Vladimir Putin feared that Russia’s big southern neighbour would end up joining both the European Union and the main Western military alliance, NATO. In the spring of 2014 he therefore incited a rebellion in two Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine, backed the revolt with Russian troops, and annexed the Crimean peninsula outright.

These illegal acts began a war that still rumbles on in the east, with 10,000 dead (mostly civilians) in four years. However, Putin is clearly not out to conquer all of Ukraine (which he could do quite easily). He just wants to paralyse the government in Kiev and make the situation in the country so problematic that NATO would never consider taking it aboard.

That’s not hard. In the presidential election of May 2014 the Ukrainians elected another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko. He’s just as corrupt as his predecessor, and there have been no reforms in the system that keeps him and his fellow oligarchs rich and the rest of the country poor. (Ukrainian GDP per capita is less than a third of Russia’s.)

The basic problem is that practically everybody who has expert knowledge or administrative experience relevant to government has been co-opted into the system. Many veterans of the Euromaidan protests were elected to parliament, but they are struggling on $600-a month salaries while they know that voting the right way can get them ten times that.

The opposition has done no better at staying united since 2014 than it did after 2004. The war in the east is largely a charade (although real people get killed in it), and it’s widely known that Poroshenko and Putin frequently have amiable late-night telephone conversations. Presumably they are discussing business deals, since there’s no money in talking about politics.

So what are the odds that the two men might one day cut a deal that ends the war? It’s possible. Putin wants an end to sanctions, and given certain guarantees he’d be happy to see the two rebel provinces rejoin Ukraine.

“Russia wants the regions (controlled by pro-Russian militants) re-integrated as a blocking share in the Ukrainian political system,” explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, in 2016. “The aim is to guarantee that Ukraine does not join NATO or move too far from Russia.”

The real obstacle to a deal now is probably Crimea. Russian nationalism won’t let Putin give it back, and Ukrainian nationalism won’t allow Poroshenko to let it go. But if the United States wants to ensure that there is no deal, it might try giving Kiev enough modern weapons to get things moving again on the military front.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 12. (“Intelligence…said”; and “The basic…deal”)

The Old Man Rages

I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.

There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, forty or seventy-five or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen.

Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US defence secretary, General James Mattis, involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.

There were also a few smaller missiles, delivered by British or French aircraft that tagged along after the Americans. They probably came within range of the Russian S-400 air defence system, by general assent the best in the world, but there was no risk of their being shot down. The Russians didn’t turn their system on.

It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.

It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.

The United States even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.

President Trump did say that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.”

So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.

The Russian Federation has half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. If Italy spent its budget the way Russia does, it too could have big conventional forces and a nuclear striking force big enough to deter even the United States from attacking it – but it could not sustain a global military confrontation with the NATO powers for even one year. Neither could Russia.

Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.

The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.

The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There were…on”; and “The Russian…Russia”)

Syria: Two Unconvincing Explanations

The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated. Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired US air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too – but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price. Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way? Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 12. (“Now…it”; and “Getting…means”)