The Kremlin has steadfastly denied any involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to London, laid out Moscow’s position on the Salisbury nerve agent attack in a press conference on Thursday. We look at his key claims - and whether they stand up to scrutiny.
Claim: “We never had Novichok”
This one is difficult to believe. At least three former Soviet scientists have described working on the Foliant programme — the code name given to the covert project to develop the Novichok family of nerve agents — in the Seventies and Eighties.
In 1992, a scientist called Andrei Zheleznyakov even described to a Russian newspaper how he was nearly killed by the nerve agent in an accident while working on the programme. He died of complications related to the poisoning the following year.
In a strictly legal sense, of course, Russia is not the Soviet Union. But as the USSR’s successor state, it inherited its UN Security Council seat and all its weapons of mass destruction. Including, presumably, the Foliant programme. And while Russia officially completed destruction of its official Soviet-era chemical stockpiles last year, that programme relied on self-declaration. There was little to stop Russia running a covert, undeclared CW program.
Claim: “The world is not supporting the Western approach”
Six countries voted on Wednesday evening in favour of a Russian motion at the executive council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons calling for a joint UK-Russian investigation, while 15 opposed it. At first glance, that looks like a defeat for Russia.
Not so, says Mr Yakovenko: 17 abstained, meaning they chose “a real and honest position” despite pressure to “associate themselves with the position of the West”. This seems like a disputable bit of diplomatic accounting. After all, UK officials can (and do) argue the fence-sitters bravely resisted Russian pressure. The FCO press release on the subject began: “The international community has once again stood with Britain.” It added that only 13 of 192 state members of the convention signed up to the Russian paper.
What is probably true is that many countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, care less about this mess than London or Moscow.
Claim: “Boris Johnson says Russia has a motive for targeting Sergei Skripal. It is not true. The statement is not supported by evidence.” In a specific sense, Yakovenko has a point — no one knows exactly why Sergei Skripal was targeted. After all, having served time in a Russian jail and before being freed in a spy swap, he was theoretically entitled — under the unwritten rules of espionage — to a peaceful retirement.
It doesn’t help the British case that the government has referred publicly to Russia’s capability, intent, and motive — but has repeatedly refused to spell out exactly what that motive might be. Was Skripal back in the spy game? Did Moscow Centre decide to break the rules to send a message? Why is that such a secret? We don’t know, and if British officials do, they are not saying. In a broader sense, however, it is the Brits who have a point and Yakovenko who is being disingenuous: there is little doubt Russia has assassinated traitors overseas — Alexander Litvinenko being the most notable example.
Claim: “As far as the results, of course we will accept the results...But these results should be confirmed by the international community. We want to see who were the experts.”
That claim will be put to the test next week, when an OPCW mission is expected to submit the results of tests on samples of the nerve agent used in Salisbury.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister and Yakovenko’s boss, earlier seemed to demand that Russians must be involved. Yakovenko appeared to soften that demand, suggesting Moscow might settle for scientists from non-Nato or EU countries. But both suggested they needed to know exactly who was conducting the tests. That would violate the OPCW’s own operating procedures. In a note released last Wednesday, the organisation’s director general noted it “does not disclose the identities of members of teams or mission planning details.”
Russia has an unfortunate record of redefining terms like “transparency” and “evidence” in the face of international inquiries with conclusions it doesn’t like. Its response to the investigation into the shooting down of the MH17 airliner — the results of which are beyond any reasonable doubt — being a case in point.
Claim: “Scotland Yard and the FCO are refusing to communicate with us.”
It’s no secret that communications between Russian and British diplomats are in a deep freeze. And it is certainly true that Russia’s demands for consular access to the Skripals — both Russian citizens —have been unsuccessful.
The FCO initially said the Skripals were in no condition to approve such requests.
Now Yulia is awake, it has said it conveyed the Russian embassy’s offer of assistance, but that she has not yet decided to take up the offer.
Yakovenko now says he’s ready to discuss “modalities” about diplomatic or family visits — a diplomat could visit Sergei and Yulia in the presence of a police officer, for example — but says the FCO has not responded to his request.
Meanwhile, Victoria Skripal, Yulia’s cousin, told the BBC last week that the British embassy in Moscow refused to tell her anything about her relatives’ condition because she is Russian. She is understood to have applied for a visa so she can fly to Britain, but it is unclear if she will be granted access to Yulia once she gets here — or whether she’ll even be granted a visa.
“I don’t want to conclude they don’t want to see her here,” said Yakovenko. “But so far we don’t have any information, and sometimes the British authorities are very quick.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Roland Oliphant covers Russia and the former Soviet Union from the Telegraph’s Moscow bureau.