80 days after being found with her father, collapsed on a bench near a Salisbury shopping centre, Yulia Skripal has made a near-miraculous reappearance. She was filmed at an anonymous park-like location, reading a handwritten statement about her plight. In substance, what she said added almost nothing to the two statements issued by the Metropolitan Police in her name before. But the whole short recording was crucial in the messages it was designed to send – to the British, Russian and international public.
It was designed, first, to reiterate the official British version of what happened, at a time when that version has started to fray rather badly. So, she said, she and her father had been the victims of a nerve agent attack; she had been in a coma for 20 days; the medical treatment had been extremely unpleasant in many respects – her tracheotomy scar was visible evidence. She was now much better, but still recovering. She did not wish to “avail herself” of the assistance offered by the Russian embassy.
But there were also conspicuous differences from the official British version. There was no blaming of Russia. There was no naming of the nerve agent. And Yulia Skripal gave no indication that she envisaged her long-term future anywhere other than Russia (contrary to an earlier British official “leak” that she and her father were to be given new identities and resettled in a third country).
Her appearance seemed, second, intended to quash some of the more extreme speculation flourishing mostly in the social media – that the Skripals were dead; that there had been no nerve agent attack, and that even if the pair were alive, they would never, ever be seen again.
And, third, there was a message addressed specifically to Russia, countering its charges that the UK had “kidnapped” one of its citizens and was unlawfully refusing consular access. Here was Yulia Skripal – well, let’s presume it was not a hi-tech confection or a “double” – saying, on camera, that she did not wish to meet Russian diplomats, at least not now.
What we have here, it seems to me, is an attempt by the UK to limit the damage to its own reputation – damage perhaps it never envisaged, because it assumed everyone would “buy” the “wicked Russia” story. And the reason this had to be done, now, or at all, was that the UK’s silence – media blackout? – about the Skripals had become embarrassing; it invited unwelcome questions, and perhaps it also risked the UK’s “triumph” in orchestrating a collective Western expulsion of Russian diplomats. It is worth noting that some of the more persistent questions have come from journalists not in Britain, but in Italy, Germany and elsewhere.
At least one of the UK’s opening assertions – that Russia was the only country to have manufactured the nerve agent in question – was challenged early, by the head of the government’s own defence research establishment at Porton Down. Since then, it has been shown that the formula was in the public domain from the mid-1990s and that both the Czechs and the Germans had access to the substance and shared the expertise with their western allies. So the presumption of Russian provenance, let alone Kremlin guilt, was always flawed.
Questions also surround the actual findings of the chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, which sent samples for testing. Not only were aspersions cast on procedures and some actual laboratory findings, but the watchdog hardly enhanced its authority when its head vastly overestimated the quantity of nerve agent supposedly used in a statement that was subsequently corrected.
It is not just details so basic as the nature of the substance, its provenance and the quantity that are still in doubt, however, but a great deal else. Either that, of the information is being deliberately withheld.
Here are just some of the many other still unanswered questions.
Precisely where and when were the Skripals poisoned? Sowing confusion is often seen as a typically Russian technique to blindside and divert the enemy. But the Russians have hardly needed to sow any chaos here, because the British have helpfully done it for them. Was the nerve agent a substance or a spray? Was it in their car, in Yulia’s suitcase, in a packet of Russian cereal brought by a friend, or smeared on the front-door handle? What did a Salisbury hospital consultant mean when he wrote to The Times, saying that “no patients have experienced symptoms of nerve agent poisoning” and only three had suffered “significant poisoning”?
What could have been the motive for such an attack? Why would the Kremlin (or an aggrieved Russian colleague) have waited eight years to hunt down a traitor who – the Russians are on record as saying – had served his time? Why would the Kremlin have risked staging such an atrocity three months before hosting the World Cup? What of the convention that swapped spies are left alone by the country they betrayed so as not to jeopardise further exchanges in future?
Why the on-off searches and decontamination of parts of Salisbury? Why was the policeman, Det Sergeant Nick Bailey, affected, but not the doctor who administered first aid? Why has nothing been heard from either? Did the policeman, as some have hazarded, belong to Special Branch and was his task to tail the Skripals? Where were they when their GPS was switched off that morning?
Why is there no suspect, beyond “Russia”? Why was there no national or international hunt for the culprit? There was a fleeting suggestion that an individual might have fled on the same plane he arrived on; then a flicker of an intelligence intercept from Switzerland that was so general as to mean nothing. Then silence. When the national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, appeared before MPs three weeks ago, he said there were as yet no suspects. That is an extraordinary – hardly credible – admission. So high-profile an attack, such an international rumpus, and still no one, no one, in the frame?
What had Sergei Skripal been doing with his time in Salisbury, aside from joining the Railway Club? Had he done something to upset the Russians, or, indeed, British security? Had he perhaps – and this is the conspiracists’ favourite theory – maintained any connection with his former MI6 handler and neighbour? More to the point, did he have any connection, via his handler, with the ex-MI6 agent, Chris Steele, his Orbis security consultancy and the anti-Trump dossier?
Nearly three months on, and still so many questions and so few answers. Through these clouds of uncertainty let me hazard just three considerations. First, the Kremlin was not involved: the Russians were as surprised by what happened as anyone; Moscow was on something of a charm offensive in advance of the World Cup. There was no Russian interest in spoiling the international atmosphere. Could it have been a security or rogue Russian operator? Who knows.
Second, Yulia, because of her security connections (via her fiancé) in Moscow and her regular travel to and fro, may have been a tempting target for recruitment by MI5/MI6. Was an attempt made? Did it go wrong? At least, it would seem from Yulia’s reappearance this week, that making a visiting Russian disappear forever is, thankfully, a step too far for UK intelligence today. Holding her against her will, however, could be another matter.
And third, I rather suspect that both the UK and Russia know more than they have told. This would help to explain both the relatively mild diplomatic response from Moscow in the last few weeks and the recent summary halt to the UK’s anti-Russian invective. Alas, we may be no closer to the truth than this.