UK’s NATO letter re Salisbury/Russia betrays flimsy case, contradicts earlier claims

The mainstream media have generally attempted to spin the OPCW’s (Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) equivocal support for Porton Down’s analysis of the toxin used in the Salisbury attack as if it proves the government’s case against Russia.

Only the report’s executive summary has been released to the public – and that does little more than damn Boris Johnson’s dishonesty – but the full report, including the OPCW’s identification of the chemical, has been circulated to all member states, including the UK.

So if the report in any way confirmed the UK’s suspicions that the source of the toxin was Russia, you’d expect the Tories to be finding every way possible to vindicate the government and hammer home the point.

And the letter sent on Friday by the government’s national security adviser to NATO would be expected to be emphatic – instead, it’s a study in spinning straw to look like silk, from its first page to its last:

Page 1 – the executive summary


sedwill 1.png

The first page of a letter, when you have a strong case and want to demonstrate it to others, will be front-loaded with the hardest-hitting, least arguable points you have to make – you want to sweep your audience off their feet and then carry them with you to a conclusion.

But Mark Sedwill’s letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg contains nothing categoric. It leads with the OPCW’s confirmation – but doesn’t even mention Novichok, just “the toxic chemical“.

The strongest thing Sedwill can bring himself to say is that he would like to share:

our assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible

Highly likely“? A week or so ago, the Times was claiming that the British government had identified the precise facility where the poison was produced – a claim this blog dismissed as nonsense at the time.

It seems the UK’s national security adviser agrees – because he can still only claim the whole, huge nation of Russia is ‘highly likely’ to be the source.

Page 2 – the case

sedwill 2_Page_1sedwill 2_Page_2

Finally, Novichok gets a mention – but the fact is not mentioned that the only official conclusion that has been issued about the identity of the poison was that it was a Novichok or a “closely-related compound”, which is significantly less specific. Never mind, let’s move on.

The door-handle is mentioned as the location of the highest concentration of the toxin – but not developed as a point. We’ll come back to it shortly.

Then the best that Mr Sedwill seems to have to offer amounts to ‘some stuff Russia did – or might have done – in the past‘.

Beyond that, Sedwill can only say the Russians may have been involved in the assassination of some critics of Russian president Vladimir Putin before they killed Aleksandr Litvinenko.

Page 3 – the close

sedwill 3

This is where the weakness of the case becomes screamingly obvious. In a good presentation of a case, hit your audience hard up front; hit them again in the middle; then hit them hard again at the end.

But there’s no hard blow.

The non-state actors

Sedwill says that Russia had a test programme for methods of delivering toxins and to train personnel. Here the ‘door handle’ argument comes back in and is claimed to be significant.

But there have been at least three plots involving the smearing of nerve toxins on door handles – and none of them involved a ‘state actor’:

For example, in Japan in 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult killed twenty people using two nerve agents: VX and Sarin. Most victims were sprayed directly with the toxin – but in one unsuccessful case, a door-handle was smeared with VX

What’s more, if the UK knew poison on door handles was a Russian ‘MO’, it’s curious that this was not mentioned to police for days after the poisoning, while officers with no protective equipment guarded the house and experts isolated locations around the town but did not isolate or test the door until later.

The ‘small stockpiles’


The government and the media have attempted to claim that Russia must have been the perpetrator in Salisbury because, while some other entities might have small amounts of Novichoks, only Russia had ‘stockpiled‘ them.

This claim, of course, ignored the obvious point that these chemicals are supposed to be so deadly that a tiny amount is lethal.

But now, in one of the most ridiculous claims of his letter, Sedwill tells Stoltenberg that Russia had “stockpiled small quantities” – when the very definition of ‘stockpile’ involves large quantities:

stockpile def.png

Sedwill just admitted that Russia had only small quantities of Novichoks – which can also be said for other groups that are believed to have purchased the toxins on the black market in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.

In other words, the thing that was supposed to be exceptional about Russia so that it must have been them – wasn’t.


Sedwill mentions an alleged hacking of email accounts by Russian military intelligence as indicative of their intent to harm their former intelligence officer. But Sergei Skripal was a known defector – the Russians had captured him and then swapped him with the UK for their own captured personnel. It’s obvious that they would continue to take an interest in him and his family, without necessarily having any intention of doing him harm.

That’s all, folks

The government’s Salisbury case?

And really that’s it. Sedwill rounds off by claiming that the Russians consider some of their defectors as targets – but provides no evidence that this was the case for Sergei Skripal.

Even then, he can only say it’s ‘highly likely‘ that they even consider some as targets – he has no proof this is the case or he would state it as fact.

In fact, it’s highly unlikely that the Russians would wish to kill – in an easily identifiable way – a spy they had already interrogated, picked clean and then exchanged in a prisoner swap. It would jeopardies future exchanges, which would not be in their interest.

And then he summarises – but even in his closing summary he can’t say more than ‘we continue to judge‘ that Russia is responsible.

He can’t claim it’s proven. He can’t claim the evidence is overwhelming – because he’s just written a three-page letter summarising his case that is anything but.

But without any justification in the preceding content of the letter, he then claims:

there is no plausible alternative explanation.

The plausible explanations

Sedwill makes his claim – even though there have been three ‘door-handle’ attacks by non-Russian, non-state perpetrators.

He makes it in spite of the now well-known fact that at least two highly-renowned chemistry experts have said it’s easy to make Novichok and any number of reasonably-equipped commercial laboratories could do so safely.

There’s no particular shortage of ‘plausible alternative explanations’.

In other words, Mr Sedwill wrote a whole three-page letter, putting forward the UK’s best case for blaming Russia for the attack – and it’s almost devoid of anything pointing to Russia except suppositions and possible past form far less substantial than the track record of non-state groups in murdering people using nerve agents.

All this after the OPCW has completed its analysis.


If the UK had compelling evidence of the source of the poison, they’d be using it in their appeal to Nato, if not elsewhere – but instead Sedwill actually weakens past claims, by destroying the claims in the Murdoch press that a specific factory of production had been identified.

As the former head of the OPCW commented this week, the UK acted prematurely in apportioning blame for the Salisbury incident far more quickly than could be done legitimately.

And now the Tory government is desperately trying to cover its tracks, the weakness of its case – and yet another example of their complete incompetence and unfitness for office.

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  1. Assessment, highly likely, highly likely, likely, highly unlikely, unlikely, probably, suggest, may have been, may have (sponsored attacks), suspected, highly likely, information indicating interest in, continue to judge, highly unlikely, NO PLAUSIBLE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION.

    Well I think we can all agree that’s pretty conclusive. Don’t you think so, Prime Minister?
    I’m totally convinced.


  2. where is our stockpile of poison gases go after removal from storage in Rhydymwn N Wales in 1989

  3. If a first year university student with a half decent tutor submitted a paper like this they would not get a pass for the essay.

    The tutor’s feedback would probably be something along these lines:

    Selective and weak argument. When making such strong claims one is required to provide equally strong evidence. You have also failed to provide adequate credible sources and referencing to support the claim. Your sole theory is inference based and you have failed to provide alternative available counter theories which further weakens your argument.

  4. Passing judgement on the conception of a series of words such as highly likely and unlikely is totally irresponsible. Under British justice everyone is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

    The police should be given sufficient funding to investigate all crimes and possible crimes should be subject to no political or press interference. The police investigation looks as if no progress has been made whatsoever.

    I still fail to understand how the detective came to be contaminated.

  5. An excellent forensic deconstruction of the letter which if anything shows a verdict scratching around for a case.

    On the basis of ‘proof’ like that shown in the letter, we invaded Iraq and precipitated the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

  6. Note the letter makes no claim that the Russians have breeched the CWC, as has been said in the media from time to time. Possibly because each state party is allowed under the CWC to retain/produce 1 tonne of Schedule 1 nerve agents and precursors, and Novichok is not even on a CWC schedule.

    I am also always puzzled by the oft-made claim, repeated above, that “highly likely Novichoks were developed … to circumvent international chemical weapons controls”. The letter above says Novichoks were developed in the 1980s (other sources say 1970s and 1980s), but the CWC did not come into force until 1997, and was first signed in 1993. Maybe by 1990 what was going to be in the CWC was becoming clear, but that was still many years after Novichoks were developed, so it is hard to understand how the soviets could develop something to circumvent a treaty that was as yet unwritten and came into force 10+ years into the future.

  7. Great work Skwawkbox.

    Our out of control war criminal regimes in UK/US and France and NATO have been attacking and destroying countries based on lies and disinformation since Blair and Clinton destroyed Yugoslavia based on lies and propaganda.
    Since then, nearly every UK/US and French leader and regime has committed the ultimate war crime… a ‘war of aggression’, without consequence. This is the “International norms” (note she never says International Law) May speaks of… freedom to kill and destroy any country that refuses to submit to western Corporatist/banking hegemony and looting.
    Since collapse of USSR western US led axis has been free to carry out a reign of terror for profit and plunder and now Russia and allies are once again pushing back to reinstate a multipolar world our regimes are prepared to risk nuclear war that will kill us all and life on earth to retain their gravy train and world tyranny, If that isn’t a sign they are mad I don’t know what is. madness.

    John Pilger sums up in 2015. Of course journalists such as the great John Pilger are no longer welcome in our venal corporatist/establishment propaganda spewing MSM.
    The ‘left’ worries about fascism on the streets, I worry about the new form of corporate/banking fascism that is turning us all into commodities to be profited from especially by killing and destroying for profit of the few.

    Trump, May and Macron will be heroes in many neoliberal warmongering minds… to me they are debased war criminals. How many Syrian children died and were blown to bits last night by US, UK and French missiles? Luckily many missiles were taken out by defences of Syria,,, that’s why the western war criminals always want to destroy air defences and create no fly zones… so they can bomb and destroy at will. Ah… that’s the real British values the establishment talks about for you.

    For anyone who didn’t see it, Imperialism on Trial event in Derry Feb 2018.

    Frome Stop War and UK Column News are holding another Media on Trial event in Leeds. Details in this news show which is worth a watch to provoke thinking on other subjects and where they might be leading us… https://www.ukcolumn.org/ukcolumn-news/uk-column-news-13th-april-2018


  8. Journalists have been visiting the sites that were bombed during the night, reporting on neighbours having “opened their windows to avoid them being broken” as the bombs fell.
    No reports of casualties from accidental release of chemical weapons, no sign of journalists wearing protective gear of any kind.

    Those must have been some very, very, very smart bombs.
    Those must have been some piss-weak chemical weapons.

  9. All One Huge Smokescreen to discredit Corbyn and take our minds off Brexit!
    When will May and her Cronies learn, you can kid some of the people some of the time, but you can’t kid all of the people all of the time!
    She’s crazy, with the wanderings of her mind, not being able to comprehend why she finds herself in zombieland, surrounded with mindless morons, who don’t know their arse from their elbow!
    It’s time for the yellow van to make a call and take her away haha hoho hehe!

    1. “When will May and her Cronies learn, you can kid some of the people some of the time, but you can’t kid all of the people all of the time!”

      The British self anointed ‘ruling classes’ and their pervasive and venal establishment have been fooling British people for centuries. It’s not the ‘ruling class’ regime that needs to learn, it’s us, the people who need to learn. stop being fooled and act.

  10. There is no information so it is difficult to know what is really happening. Where did Skripal work? It was reported originally that he was now attached to British intelligence but no other details. Did he work at Porton Down as it was so near to his home? Could it have been an accident? If Putin didn’t try and kill him maybe it was criminal/mafia related but what were his activities? We know nothing.

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