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The Russian-British scandal concerning the poisoning of the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet Novichok nerve agent acquires a pan-European scale. A few days ago, on the air of Russia24 television channel, the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova denied her country's involvement in the poisoning of Skripal and stressed that the development of the substance, codenamed Novichok, was never conducted either in Russia or in the USSR. She stated that the most likely source of the chemical's origin is the United Kingdom, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and, possibly, the United States, which allegedly have been conducting intensive research of substances from the Novichok project since the late 1990s.
Governments of the European countries have refuted Zakharova's assumptions. Particularly active was the reaction of the Czech Republic, whose authorities advocate the intensification of trade and economic cooperation with Russia and have been questioning the feasibility of anti-Russian sanctions until recently. The Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Zakharova's statement absurd and summoned Russian ambassador Alexander Zmievsky for explanations. Council of the EU has published a statement in which Russia was accused of violating the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; the body demanded to disclose details of the Novichok program before the Organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons, underlying that the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances is a threat. It seems that in the relations between Russia and the European Union there was one more problematic issue, which could be beneficial for Ukraine.
March 4, Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious near a shopping mall in Salisbury. According to the military research institute in Porton Down, they could be poisoned with Novichok nerve agent, series of nerve agents the Soviet Union and Russia developed between 1971 and 1993. In 1995-2000, Colonel Skripal worked for the British intelligence service MI6 and during this time gave the UK information from 20 thousand secret documents, including Russian military facilities. In 2004-2010, he was serving a prison sentence in Russia. In 2010, he was extradited to the UK as part of an exchange deal for 10 Russian spies arrested in the United States.
The investigation of the circumstances of Skripal’s poisoning has not yet been completed, and it is unclear how the Soviet substance Novichok appeared in the UK and how the British experts determined that this particular type of chemical weapon was used in Salisbury. So far this incident has a lot of blank spots. However, the Kremlin decided not to wait for the results of the British investigation and hastily accused the West of everything in order to shift attention from Russia to the European countries. Zakharova tried to confuse the EU member states. Russian Ambassador Alexander Zmievsky vaguely explained to Czech diplomats that in her assumptions Zakharova relied on the fact that the Czech Republic and other named countries allegedly could also produce similar chemical weapons.
If we proceed from the logic of Russians, then any country with more or less developed scientific, technical and intellectual potential can develop chemical weapons. In 1930-1970's, Sweden conducted research on mustard gas and sarin and considered the possibility of their use by the Swedish army. However, under pressure from society and in view of the unfavorable economic situation in 1970, Swedish government refused further development in the field of chemical weapons. Britain used chemical weapons during the First World War. In 1939-1989, the Institute in Porton Down conducted experiments with nerve agents. In the 50s, the United Kingdom produced 20 tons of the neuroscientific sarin agent. The development of chemical weapons was carried out by the United States. By the early 1990s, there were 30,000 tons of chemical weapons in the United States. As of 2012, the States destroyed 90% of their stockpiles and plan to complete liquidation by 2023. In 1999, US military experts visited Uzbekistan to help local authorities close the Soviet chemical weapons testing ground in Ustyurt, where the Novichok substance could be tested.
It is doubtful that European countries, as Zakharova suspects, were developing new types of chemical weapons since the late 1990s. In 1993, an international convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons was signed (entered into force in 1997), under which 190 participating countries pledged to destroy their chemical weapons stockpiles and capacities for its production. The United States, Great Britain, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia are party to this convention. Only Egypt, South Sudan, and North Korea have not signed this document. Prior to the signing of the convention, the major owners of chemical weapons were Albania, India, South Korea, Libya, but not the European countries, listed by Zakharova. Andor Šándor, former head of the Czech Military Intelligence, believes that the chemical warfare agents were not in service in the army of Czechoslovakia. In his opinion, the Czech Republic did not even work with substances like Novichok. A similar opinion is shared by the former head of the Slovak Information Service, Peter Tóth.
Following this logic, it could be argued that Russia is responsible for the attempt to poison Skripal. At least there are more hooks for this. As Moskovsky Komsomolets (Russian newspaper) writes, referring to one of Novichok developers, Soviet chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in the United States, the formula of this agent is classified, and only Russia could produce it. Novichok was developed as part of the "Foliant" program in the branches of the "State Union Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology" in Novocheboksarsk or Shikhany. Mirzoyanov does not believe that Russia destroyed its chemical weapons reserves (40,000 tons). Apparently, Russia could keep some promising samples, like Novichok substance, or even create it anew.
In addition, the attempted Skripal’s murder is similar to the poisoning with a radioactive isotope of polonium-210 by former FSB lieutenant colonel Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. He fled to the UK due to persecution in Russia. He accused the Russian special services of involvement in explosions of apartment buildings. In both cases, the instrument of crime was rare substances, and the objects of elimination were former Russian law enforcers, who knew too many secrets of the Kremlin. By eliminating their spies, who have shifted to someone else's side, the Kremlin makes it clear to its law enforcers that working for special services of other states can cost lives.
Zakharova’s demarche has maneuvered Russia into a diplomatic dead-end and aggravated relations with Europe. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic stated that the assertions of the Russian side strike at the will of the two countries to develop mutual cooperation. Zakharova actually tried to shift the suspicions of Britain about the poisoning of Skripal towards the Czech Republic, one of Russia's closest partners in the EU. At the moment, moderate Eurosceptics are in power in the Czech Republic, lobbying Russia's interests in the EU. Czech President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrei Babish consider the annexation of Crimea a fait accompli and do not see any sense in the current anti-Russian sanctions. Zeman even offered to pay Ukraine material compensation to close the Crimean issue. The Czech president became one of those European leaders who congratulated Vladimir Putin on his recent victory in the presidential election. British Prime Minister Theresa May and President of the Council of the European Union Donald Tusk abstained from such a step. The ruling ANO 2011 party in the Czech Republic is considering the possibility of developing a new strategy for relations with Russia in order to strengthen European security. Czech businesses are interested in working with Russia in the fields of metallurgy, machine building, and fuel supply. However, instead of constructive relations with Russia, the Czechs got a spit in the face of a Russian diplomat. Russia discredited itself in the eyes of the Czech political elite, and the level of trust in bilateral relations was undermined.
The same goes for Slovakia. Former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico did not conceal the negative impact of anti-Russian sanctions on the European economy and supported them solely for the sake of preserving pan-European unity, advocating good-neighborly relations between Russia and the EU. Zakharova's statement will increase the degree of anti-Russian sentiment in European countries. The British parliament plans to adopt new laws to strengthen the fight against espionage and protect against the hostile actions of the other states. The law on sanctions might be edited similarly to "Magnitsky Act". American "Magnitsky Act" of 2012 provides for the possibility of imposing personal sanctions on those responsible for violating human rights. Personal sanctions include the freezing of bank accounts. The royal family and government members decided to boycott the World Cup in Russia this year.
Instead of dividing the EU with the help of Skripal’s poisoning issue, Zakharova has helped strengthen the British position concerning the confrontation with Russia. The foreign ministers of the EU member states expressed solidarity with Britain and a desire to bring the perpetrators to justice. Earlier, Britain supported the United States during the UN Security Council meeting on the case of Skripal. The chemical scandal of Russia and Europe is a kind of sobering soul for European politicians who simplify the Russian threat to the security of their countries and are ready to turn a blind eye to the annexation of Crimea and Donbas conflict for the sake of their business interests. This applies to Italian Eurosceptics and populists from "League of the North", "Forward, Italy", "Five Star Movement" parties, Austrian ultranationalists from the "Austrian Freedom Party", German anti-immigrant party "Alternative for Germany". Russia once again appeared as a state, with which it is very difficult to seek common ground.
The new problem point in the relations between Russia and the West meets the interests of Ukraine. Poisoning of Skripal and Zakharova’s demarche create prerequisites for the extension and tightening of the current anti-Russian. It is unlikely that now the political elite of the Czech Republic will lobby for the cancellation or mitigation of anti-Russian sanctions. If the investigation proves that the poisoning of Skrypal is the work of the Russian special services or the individuals sponsored by them, it will be difficult for America and Europe to abstain from imposing new restrictive measures on Russia.
The aggression of Russia in Ukraine or Georgia, which are not NATO members, is one thing, and the use of banned chemical weapons on the territory of a member country is quite another matter. Russia could violate the sovereignty of Great Britain. According to the NATO charter, member countries are obliged to provide assistance to the injured party (in this case, the UK). The poisoning of Skrypal creates the basis for the introduction of new collective anti-Russian sanctions by the United States and Europe against the most profitable sectors of the Russian economy. Sanctions will last until Russia reveals information about the Novichok agent, not to mention the return of Crimea to Ukraine and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 112.International and its owners.