Russian-Israelis: identity and trauma

Israel was formed by immigration, and Jews from Eastern Europe were an important part of the Jewish immigration to Palestine ever since the days of the First Aliyah of 1882. Many Russian-speaking Jews arrived in Palestine fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and would form the backbone of Ha-Yishuv (the settlement). After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union’s tightening border controls meant that few if any Soviets were allowed to leave the country, generating a sharp disconnect between the Soviet Jews and their Jewish brethren abroad. After almost half a century of suspended Jewish migration, many Soviet-Jews arrived in Israel in the 1970s and even more in the 1990s, in the periods of Soviet openness towards Jewish emigration. These were much larger waves of immigration, and they had a significant impact on Israel – the Jews were also deeply altered by half a century of socialism. Today, Russian-speaking Jews are an important part of Israel’s demographic, and key right-wing voters in Israel’s politics. 

A migrant’s culture could be defined as a compromise between his origin society’s values and the ones of his host society. Israel’s immigration story is closely linked to Israel’s Law of Return, that stipulated that any Jew has the right to come to Israel. The law reflects a vision of Israel as a safe haven for all the Jews in the world and is one of the cornerstones of modern Israel’s identity. Many have claimed the law promotes a proactive and effective integration policy towards new migrants, who are immediately given Israeli citizenship and allowed to vote.

Israel is a very diverse society, and the simplified distinction between the Jews and the Palestinians often does not account for the complexities of the cultural landscape on the ground. Even when looking at Israel’s Jews, the standard separation between the Ashkenazim (European Jews) and Sephardim or Mizrachim (Middle Eastern Jews) is often insufficient to understand the different origins of modern Israelis.

Ashkenazim in Israel are composed of European and American Jews, but also Jews from the Soviet bloc. The cultural and social divergences between Western and Soviet Jews reflect the Cold War divisions of Europe. In the Soviet Union, emigration was strictly prohibited, and only a few openings were available to Jews who wanted to emigrate. In this closed country, Soviet Jews developed a distinct mindset and integrated into Soviet society against the backdrop of rabid antisemitism, often preserving their sense of Jewish identity in a concealed and heavily secularised form.

Periods of brief Soviet openings toward Jewish emigration led to waves of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in the 1970s (150,000) and especially in the years 1989 to 1991 (400,000). Another 300,000 to 400,000 arrived during the 1990s. The immigrants on average had a higher level of education than most of the native Israeli population, which was partly because education was one of the only tools of social mobility available to Soviet Jews. Russian-speaking Jews were also overwhelmingly urban and had smaller families on average. While in many ways they have integrated into Israeli society, some have perceived that their Jewishness, which they preserved despite widespread anti-Semitism in their societies of origin, was suddenly under question from the Israeli society itself. The religious establishment in Israel is strongly connected to the state – the Rabbinate’s authority extends to determining someone’s Jewishness on the basis of their mothers’ religious persuasions, according to the halakha law that stipulates that Jewishness is passed on by the mother.

Many Jewish immigrants from socialist and former-socialist countries defined their Jewishness differently, in ethnic and cultural terms, reflecting the way in which socialist states classified someone as a Jew. Several of the new immigrants were sons and daughters of Jewish fathers, and having experienced anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, they perceived themselves to be no less Jewish than those born to a Jewish mother. Yet Israel’s society limits the rights of patrilineal Jews, who are for example unable to have an official marriage unless they ‘correct’ themselves by subscribing to a full-blown conversion. This includes extensive and sometimes humiliating monitoring by the religious establishment to ensure regular religious activity from the new converts. Adding to this, Russian Jews sometimes brought to Israel spouses or family members who were not Jews, creating a situation where the authenticity of the Russian-speaking immigrants’ Jewishness was increasingly questioned by the Israeli society.

While the Russian Jewish immigration wave of the 90s has significantly contributed to Israel’s economic development, some problems were also apparent. The sheer size of the wave made it hard for Russian Israelis to fully meld into the native society, leading to unfavourable comparisons with the smaller wave of Soviet Jews from the 70s. Those were portrayed as ‘model immigrants’ who, unlike their rowdy counterparts from the 90s, were said to have integrated into Israeli society without much trouble.

There were issues of language, culture, beliefs and economic status. In terms of integration, the Russian-speaking immigration wave was also arguably the only one in Israel’s history to openly preserve the language and culture of their society of origin. Larissa Remennick, a sociology professor, wrote that in the case of Soviet Jews ‘their deities were Pushkin, Chekhov, Pasternak and Bulgakov’, and that the immigrants retained a visceral connection to Russian culture. Russian-language news outlets are still incredibly popular. In a clash of cultures, Russian grocery stores even sometimes sell pork, a deep gastronomic taboo in Judaism and consequently in Israeli society, and an important staple of Slavic and Soviet cuisine. Russian-speaking Jews are mostly secular, with only around 30% reporting religious beliefs. They tend to associate secularism with modernity and use their voting power in favour of a more secular Israel. The immigrants of the 90s often reported high levels of distrust towards politics, with some also noting their disappointment at the economic prospects in their new homeland. In many cases, and despite the harsh Soviet quotas on Jewish students in universities, Soviet Jews were overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia, and were expecting to find in Israel comfortable working conditions that matched their professional skills.

Waves of Soviet immigrants have often sparked the ire of the religious establishment which doubted the new arrivals’ Jewishness and worried about the dilution of religiousness in Israel. Undoubtedly, the Rabbinate also feared a loss of political control, which was expected to be precipitated by the arrival of secular migrants. The suspicions have never quite gone away: in 2020, Israel’s chief rabbi called the immigrants from the former Soviet Union ‘religion-hating gentiles’ drawing condemnations from across Israel’s political spectrum. His remarks did however resonate with a portion of Israelis that view the Russian-speaking immigrants with distrust.

Some observers have noted that the Russian-speaking community tends to be attracted to strong leader figures and has embraced Israel’s right-wing parties. There are many reasons for the Russian-speakers’ alliance with Israel’s right.

Some have argued that the Russian Jews’ often hawkish stance on Palestinian issues reflects their perception of Israel as an ethnocentric state. This echoes back to their own experiences in the Soviet Union, where Jews were systematically stigmatised, and markers of Jewish identity had to be concealed and suppressed. In the view of some Russian Jews, Israel was finally a place where Jews had the majority status. Therefore, judging from their Soviet experience, they expected their Jewish status to reflect all the privileges that such a position should entail. Some Russian Jews also associated the Arabs with the upsurge of Soviet anti-Semitism. While obviously not taking part in the Arab-Israel conflicts, Soviet Jews became indirect victims of those conflicts within the USSR, where Israel’s victories caused a steady rise of Soviet anti-Semitism, starting with the Six Day War and continuing throughout the 70s.

Russian Jews also have much more uncompromising stances on Israel’s security. This might be due to the fact that after their immigration to Israel, many have ended up in border towns or settlements, on the frontlines of a conflict they barely understood. The FSU (former Soviet Union) immigrants also figured disproportionately among Palestinian terror victims due to their proximity to the conflict areas. Many sociological studies, for example those by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague attest to the radicalizing effects that manifestations of violence have on immigrants in their adoptive homelands. Their outrage was also amplified by the Russian-language media, which often focused on themes of unjust martyrdom of long-suffering Russian Jews at the hands of Arab terrorists, especially during the Intifadas [Palestinian uprisings against Israel’s control]. Yelenevskaya quotes an article piece:

Once, at the very beginning of Intifada, an old woman, a colonel of the Red Army and a war veteran, was in a car driving along a road in Samaria. The car was shot by terrorists. She had survived the war against the Nazis but was killed by those who continue on their road. Only here in Israel the veterans find themselves on the frontline again. And so do their grandchildren.

She notes that Soviet Jews often viewed Israel’s politicians and Israel’s society as much too lax and were sceptical about the possibilities of a compromise with the Arabs. They also decried an overall lack of order along with what they perceived to be the chronic insecurities of their communities in the face of terrorism, poverty, high housing prices and the two Intifadas. When sometimes a sense of patronising superiority over local Jews emerged, it could be explained by the pervasive socialist-era propaganda of the Soviet man’s superiority, and of the Soviet civilisation as an epitome of Utopian thinking. Aside from this type of thinking, they often carried with them emotional baggage from their home country, which some sociologists eventually qualified as a form of psychological trauma due to the collapse of an entire system of beliefs and meanings with the fall of the USSR. Many Soviet Jews were ambiguous in their relationship to the USSR, both resenting a country that stigmatised and persecuted them as Jews, while often expressing a profound nostalgia for an idealised country of their youth.

Others, such as Larissa Remmenick, have sought to highlight the Russian Jews’ insecurities about their identity, which were reflected by the Russian-speaking immigrants ‘constant need for adjustment and mimicry’. It could be suggested that many Russian Jews opted to imitate and ‘outdo’ the locals by doubling down on radical views such as Israeli nationalism and Jewish ethnocentrism. Many Russian speakers’ rejection of the establishment as too lax and moderate eventually led to them voting for the right-wing parties.

Soviet Jewish votes led to the rise of parties catering to Soviet Jewish interests, starting with Yisrael BaAliyah [Israel on the rise]. The party’s gradual drift to the right of the political spectrum reflected that of the majority of Russian Jews. Eventually came the rise of another party, Yisrael Beitenu [Israel, our home], which sought to capitalise on right-wing secular nationalist votes, predominantly from the Russian community. The party was formed by a group of statesmen led by Avigdor Lieberman, who left the government coalition to protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Today, competition over Soviet Jewish votes is prevalent in Israeli politics and has gotten more spotlight during the repeated election runs of 2019, when Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to peel Russian-speaking votes from Avigor Lieberman’s secular nationalist Israel Beitenu. Streets in Russian-Jewish neighbourhoods often featured signs in Cyrillic proclaiming ‘Only Netanyahu – only Likud’. Some Russian Jews were finally promised pensions which were previously repeatedly denied to them. Election posters featured pictures of Netanyahu holding the hand of president Putin. Many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel originate from Ukraine – and Netanyahu also made a prompt state visit to the country, and its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. It can be argued that Likud’s attempts to draw in Russian Jewish votes were not very successful: fundamental distrust towards the religious parties in coalition with Netanyahu’s government prevented many Russian Jews from voting for Likud.

Change is on the horizon. The younger Russian Jewish electorate is more integrated, speaks much better Hebrew, is more moderate, and is slowly shedding some ambiguous aspects of their complicated identity, identifying more strongly with Israel than with an idealised country of their parents’ memories. They retain a strong connection to the Russian language and culture but are often more comfortable with a hybrid or predominantly Israeli identity fusing both Jewish and Russian cultural symbols and practices. They often remain relatively antagonistic towards the Rabbinate’s authority but are less likely to vote for the Russian-speaker parties such as Yisrael Beitenu, instead opting for a wider spectrum of parties reflecting individual preferences and beliefs. Russian speakers will continue to play an influential role in Israel’s politics, and it remains interesting to see how their demographic evolution will affect the Russian Jews’ political affiliation. Perhaps the new Russian Jewish generation will not carry in them their parents’ Soviet traumas and insecurities, will finally be able to lay the questions of identity aside and be full members of Israeli society. But some change in Israeli society’s capacity to accommodate them will also be needed: perhaps a concession on behalf of the uncompromising religious establishment. As of today, there are reasons to remain pessimistic about such prospects.

 

Lubov Chernukhin backs the Tories

Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russian ex-finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, recently became the biggest female donor to any political party in the United Kingdom. Her total contributions amount to over £1.9 million in the last six years.

Lubov herself is now a British citizen and has every right and entitlement to donate to a British political party. Russian state interference in the British political landscape, on the other hand, is understandably concerning. This concern was reflected by the UK government itself with a report conducted in 2019 into possible Russian interference. The failure of the British government to release this report, since its publication in October, has led many individuals both inside and outside the government to question the findings and the reason for its non-release. One can only presume that it confirms suspicions that Russia intervened in the UK referendum on Brexit and the government therefore wants to avoid its release, in case that the Brexit issue is brought back to centre stage.

Transparency is vital in politics, both in order to fully understand the possible influence and sway that money exerts on politicians and the political agenda, as well as acknowledge what possible external pressures have been placed on the electorate.  Britain has a greater degree of transparency regarding the source of donations to political parties than most countries. However, Britain lacks transparency with regard to outside interference in the political process. 

Lubov Chernukhin becoming Britain’s largest ever female political donor is quite an accolade. Attempting to research and understand Lubov Chernukhin’s past is difficult. Of Russian heritage, she attained British citizenship alongside her husband, Vladimir Chernukhin. Mr. Chernukhin held the role of deputy finance minister from 2000 to 2002, in which “he had ‘regular meetings’ with Putin“. During his career, Mr. Chernukhin became a close ally of Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov, who was removed as prime minister in 2004 by Putin’s government.  After an alleged falling out, Putin stripped Mr. Chernukhin of his role, prompting Mr. Chernukin’s move to the UK to escape the possibility of arrest

Lubov Chernukhin’s career path is more difficult to explore. By profession, she is presumably a banker and consultant. She is currently the director of a property firm called Capital Construction And Development Ltd. Under her maiden name, Golubeva, she had previously acted in the role of director for five other companies, all of which have been dissolved.

The couple’s primary residence is an eight million pound mansion overlooking London’s Regent Park, reportedly owned by an offshore trust. During a court case in which Mr. Chernukhin was involved, Justice Teare commented that it was obvious “that Mr. Chernukhin had prospered in Russia after the collapse of the USSR”. 

As Ms. Chernukhin tends to avoid publicity and does not give interviews, it is challenging to determine her current stance on Russia. Her husband, Mr. Chernukhin was indeed removed by Putin, and fearing arrest has not returned since, prompting the belief that he might be Anti-Russia. Regardless, he remains influential in his home country.  Luke Harding, a Guardian journalist, tweeted that in a recent legal battle, when asked if Vladimir Chernukhin “still had relationships with ‘prominent members of [Russia’s] establishment’ who were still in favour with the Kremlin”, his wife, Lubov Chernukhin, replied, “‘Today he still does, yes”‘. The legal battle was between Mr. Chernukhin and Mr. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has remained in Russia,  regarding a dispute over property in Russia. If Ms. Chernukhin were not so reluctant to step into the media spotlight, we might better understand her motives which, one can only speculate, may be to ensure that the UK remains independent of the influence of a mother country from which, presumably, herself and her husband are now exiles.

Lubov Chernukhin’s political donation history is also a windy road. She attempted to give her first donation of £10,000 to the United Kingdom Conservative Party in 2012 which was initially blocked as she was declared as “an impermissible donor” by the Electoral Commission. Presumably, the reason for this was because she was not yet on the electoral roll. As a British citizen, however, she now has every right and freedom to make donations to political parties.  The Conservative party took advice about her donation and ultimately determined that there was no reason not to accept it. Since then, she has donated over £1.9 million, in 54 different cash payments, making her the biggest ever female donor to any political party in the United Kingdom. These donations have often provided her with face time with Conservative party leadership. Such occasions have included £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron in 2014, £135,000 in February 2019 for dinner with female cabinet members including Theresa May, and £45,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson in February 2020. The donations are all public record, the contents of their conversation are obviously not. But arguably, Ms. Chernukhin has potentially become one of the most significantly influential figures in British politics merely because of her donations. In the first three months of 2020, Lubov Chernukhin has donated an additional £335,000 to the Conservative party.

Regarding the quite separate issue of Russian state interference in British politics, after it was revealed that the Kremlin had interfered with both the 2016 United States election and the EU referendum, an investigation was ordered to look into possible Russian interference in the United Kingdom. It was finalised in March 2019, before being sent to Downing Street in October 2019. Conducted by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, it examined alleged Russian activity, including espionage, interference, and subversion, in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election, citing evidence from intelligence services such as MI5 and MI6. Despite having the report since October of last year, Downing Street claimed that it could not be released before the December election as it could not go through the proper processes before parliament returned after the general election. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, confirmed that the report was cleared by early October and has not received a response despite “the longstanding agreement that the Prime Minister will endeavour to respond within ten days”, adding that in this case, there has been no response at all. It has still not been released as of June 2020. Calls are now being made by politicians for the release of the report and questioning the reason why it has not been published. Dominic Grieve has expressed concern that the results of the report would be pertinent to voters in the next election. 

The UK Freedom of Information Act of 2000 guarantees public access to any recorded information held by public authorities. Information that has been cleared and approved for the public eye should be readily available for those requesting it. No government can claim to be free from influence so it should be acknowledged and in order to be an open democracy, the responsibility for transparency falls on every member of the government. 

 

The Failure of the International Community to address the Russian Oil Spill

On the 29th of May, 20,000 tonnes of diesel were spilled into the Ambarnaya river near the city of Norsilk in Russia. The oil drifted 12 km and contaminated an estimated 350 square km of the surrounding ecosystem. While environmental organisations and news agencies were quick to report the spill, the international community has remained relatively quiet about this environmental catastrophe, inadvertently and mistakenly considering it a domestic issue.

Russia cited deteriorating ground subsidence due to melting permafrost as the reason for the collapse of the fuel tank, declaring a State of Emergency in an attempt to give the incident priority in necessary resources and attention. In addition, Russia’s chief prosecutor has ordered further checks in the hope of preventing future catastrophes. As 55% of Russia’s territory is covered in permafrost and home to most of its oil and gas fields, their lack of strategy mirrors the lack of international preparation in combatting climate change.

The Paris climate agreement was an unprecedented example of global cooperation to formulate an international response to climate change. Despite the agreement being ratified by 189 countries, Russia’s oil spill has not been addressed officially or through social media by any heads of state, with the exception of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who offered the assistance and expertise of the United States. 

While the international community is preoccupied with tackling other issues such as coronavirus and protests, this is not just a Russian problem. It is estimated that ¼ of the Northern hemisphere is permafrost, a number which is quickly decreasing and this issue must be addressed. If the international community fails to learn from Russia’s incident and prepare an international response to the issue, this will not be the last of environmental disasters we see at the hands of an unprepared government. 

 

The Uncertain Future of Vladimir V. Putin

If Otto von Bismarck was right when he said, “politics is not a science, but an art,” then Vladimir Putin is a virtuoso whose great works deserve to hang in the halls of the Hermitage. 

Since acceding to the presidency in 1999, initially as a temporary replacement for a declining Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has spent the opening 20 years of the 21st century at the head of the Russian Federation, a considerable, if crumbling global power. 

Over the years, the President, then Prime Minister, then President (again and again), has remained at the top. He defeated the Communist Party in a 2000 election, won essentially uncontested in 2004, then — due to a clause in the Russian Constitution not allowing Presidents more than two consecutive terms — spent four years as Prime Minister, theoretically subordinate to Dmitry Medvedev. Never losing his influence or sway over his country’s politics however, Putin completed his ‘castling’ move with Medvedev and again became President in 2012, this time for six years as his predecessor had helpfully extended the office’s term limits during the period of Putin’s interregnum. And so, the game continued, with Putin at the helm until March 2018, at which point another illiberal election renewed his lease on the Kremlin until 2024. 

2020 began with what was perceived at the time to be either an overture to the finale, or merely a prelude to an era of renewed Putinism. In January, the State Duma and Federation Council (the Russian houses of parliament) passed bills that strengthened the legislature and prime minister at the presidency’s expense, while imbuing a previously inconsequential body called the State Council with new powers. The shakeup, so the theories went, would allow Putin in 2024 to either become Prime Minister again, this time with expanded influence, or discreetly exercise control through the new levers available to him as chairman of the State Council. 

In March, however, amidst the background of COVID-19’s beginnings in Russia, Putin changed track. On March 11th, he pushed more amendments through the Duma and Federation Council that would reset his number of presidential limits to zero, thereby allowing him to run for the presidency anew in 2024, as well as ostensibly in 2030, should the then-septuagenarian wish to do so. But before these changes could be finalized as the law of the land, they had to be given popular assent via a national referendum, the date of which Putin set for April 22nd. 

Even without factoring in the effects of COVID-19, Putin’s planned political arithmetic was this time not going to be simply executed. The social contract in place, one requiring sufficient enough economic prosperity to make up for an absence of political rights, was already increasingly tenuous. Putin’s approval took a hit in 2019 after he raised the retirement age, and tough Western sanctions imposed after the seizure of Crimea in 2014 have helped keep Russian disposable incomes below their 2013 levels. 

With the advent of the coronavirus, though, Putin’s position has become more fragile than ever. The first cases arrived on January 31st, when two Chinese tourists were diagnosed with the virus, but initially, it seemed that Russia may have been able to escape the worst. According to government figures, no Russian nationals were infected until February 17th and throughout March, Putin’s air was collected and confident. At the beginning of the month, on the 1st, he declared the situation “entirely under control” and towards the end, on the 25th, he still maintained that Russia had the ability “to restrain both the wide and rapid spread of the disease.” He closed national borders to protect his citizens and their “sovereignty”— one of Putin’s common rallying cries— and declared on March 27th a week-long nationwide ‘holiday’, accompanied by tax deferments for medium and small-sized businesses. 

Putin Graph

If at the beginning of April, the worse had yet to come, over the course of the month the situation in Russia rapidly deteriorated. Cases skyrocketed, and even government officials, including the Prime Minister, were diagnosed with COVID-19. At the same time, Putin’s two-pronged political strategy — that of distancing and deception — became apparent. He began avoiding publicly commenting on the virus and declared that regional governors would have to make difficult decisions themselves. 

This allowed Putin to criticize local leaders from afar for ‘sloppiness’ when the coronavirus became particularly problematic in a certain region, as happened in Komi, Central Russia. Additionally, as legal activist Ernest Mezak pointed out, the fact that local officials lie, because “this is what they have always have done… as a habit” in order to please Putin, helped keep the number of confirmed cases and COVID-19 fatalities at a minimum. 

Still, however, Putin’s efforts to avoid being blamed have not been successful. His public approval was recently measured at 59% by Levada, a pollster thought to be independent of the state. Even putting to one side the well-documented fact that citizens of an authoritarian, or at least highly illiberal, government like that in Russia are likely to overstate their support so as to project loyalty, the May rating was the lowest recorded since Putin took office in 1999. 

Because of the virus and / or his unpopularity, Putin’s all-important national referendum on the constitutional amendments has been delayed. While on March 11th, 64% of voters were recorded to support the changes, by April 17th only 50% of Russians said they would vote their approval. With real incomes expected to fall by at least 5% according to Alfa bank (one of the largest private banks in Russia), and with unemployment forecast to skyrocket, it would seem support for the amendments will likely fall further. 

In a democracy as opaque as Russia, an absence of popular support may not seem overly consequential for Vladimir Putin. But for all his maneuvering, he has largely been popularly supported throughout his 21st-century reign. Still, if the situation in Russia remains dire with oil prices low, regular employment absent, and government aid paltry, then Mr. Putin may face his greatest challenge yet: a truly democratic one. 

 

The war in North Syria – a Syrian perspective

Turkey goes Head to Head with Russia in Syria

President Erdogan of Turkey is facing down Putin of Russia – and this time at least, Bashar al Assad is not the big factor. But the the consequence is, as ever, that the ordinary people suffer as Turkey adds to the misery as it starts to bombard Northern Syria from drones. This overview is based on feedback from Syrians on the spot. To listen to the latest podcast on this subject from William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, click on the link:  https://www.buzzsprout.com/529801/2897692-syria-turkey-goes-head-to-head-with-russia

Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.

Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.

Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.

Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.

The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.

More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.

There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.

Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.

It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.

Why is Syria so important to Russia?

From the 1950s onwards, Syria received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union. In return, in 1971 Syria’s new president Hafez al-Assad allowed the USSR to open its naval military base in the port city of Tartus. Cordial relations continued into the 1980s as Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, though ties with Syria were maintained, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the vision of socialist utopia was in ruins.

As a nation that has, historically, sought credibility by projecting itself as a formidable power – regardless of its internal weaknesses – post-Soviet Russia has been keen to regain its position as a key player on the international stage. Inevitably, therefore, Moscow has looked to Syria as a region where it can build upon historic ties and exert influence to rival that of the United States across the Middle East. Russia has been successful in achieving this aim. It is now regarded as a key arbiter in the region and boasts the defeat of ISIS in Syria despite President Obama’s claims in 2015 that Russian interference in Syria would be to no avail. Moreover, in November 2017, Putin hosted  talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria’s future, highlighting the international consensus that Russia will play a key role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since then, Putin has continued to flex his muscles in the region and proven himself to be a fundamental player in the outcome of the conflict. This not only bolsters his international standing, but also his domestic reputation as a leader who is intent on transforming Russia into a formidable power once more.

There are, however, more tangible interests at stake for Russia in Syria. The naval base in Tartus which was established in 1971 is now Russia’s only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union and holds great strategic importance. By remaining close with President Bashar al-Assad there is a possibility that Russia could, in the future, advance its presence in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Assad is reliant on Russia for providing critical air support, affording Russia a valuable opportunity to test its arms systems.

At present, therefore, Russia is centre stage in the attempt to navigate a Syrian peace settlement. This involves overcoming several challenges that have presented themselves now that the conflict has started to dissipate. For example, Assad has adopted a more unruly attitude now that he perceives himself as a ‘victor’ in the conflict and thus less dependent on Russia. Moscow recognises that Assad cannot fully resume his old powers, but must also contend with the factionalism that is rife within Syria (between anti-Assad opposition groups, pro-Turkish and pro-Iranian militias and the Kurds). If the commentator Dmitri Trenin is correct and Russia is paving the way for a coalition government by creating several de-escalation zones then Putin will need to persuade Assad to accept this, as well as accepting Iran’s interests in the region that Israel has unsurprisingly perceived as a threat.

In his attempt to build his reputation as an international strongman, Vladimir Putin has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. As long as his international exploits earn him credibility at home, Putin will continue to exert influence over an ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East. But now that he has successfully raised Russia’s international standing, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s diplomacy will continue to live up to his rhetoric.

Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

Frozen Assets, Frozen Relations? Key unpublished background on the Russia / UK issue

A few months ago, Boris Johnson visited Moscow to talk about UK relations with Russia – he was the first UK Foreign Secretary to do so in five years. It was an understatement then, when Johnson conceded that Britain’s relationship with Russia was “not on a good footing” and vowed to improve relations.

The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a leafy cathedral town in England on the 4th of March has however dashed any hopes of closer relations between the two countries. In fact it has threatened to entirely freeze an already cold relationship.

Indeed earlier this week, Johnson himself changed tact, calling Russia a “malign and disruptive force” and accusing the Kremlin of launching cyber-attacks against Britain, labelling them an “act of war.”

Prime Minister Theresa May was even more damning in her condemnation of Russia in light of the poisoning. Speaking in the House of Commons, May publicly accused Russia of attempted murder both because of its record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and also because the nerve agent purportedly used on Skripal was, and could only be produced in Russia. There are, May concluded “only two plausible explanations for what happened;” either Russia directly orchestrated an attack on a citizen on foreign soil or it simply lost control of the nerve agent, allowing it to get into the hands of others.

May ended with an ultimatum to Russia: you have 24 hours to provide credible evidence that the attack was not state-sponsored or face the consequences of an act that essentially amounts to military aggression. Comparing it to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another double agent, May promised much more extensive measures than the sanctions put in place after his death.

Key points from a source the name of which the NCF has agreed to withhold at present:

  1. It is very doubtful that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed – if they were potentially usable as weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.
  2. “Novichok” compounds are easy to synthesize at bench scale in a modern lab – how else could Porton Down have developed a test for them? Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability. Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.

Background – again from the NCF source (name withheld)

  1. The only source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
  2. Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.
  3. Mirzayanov claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize: One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.
  4. An authoritative review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds: In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.
  5. OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board did not take Mirzayanov’s story seriously enough to rate these compounds and their precursors as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Scientific Advisory Board emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the Scientific Advisory Board makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The Scientific Advisory Board states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. We can reasonably assume that if they had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, they would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals.
  6. The Prime Minister stated that: There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. Of course there is a third possible explanation for the detection of such a compound.  As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound, with the objective of generating a trail of evidence that would point to Russia. Porton Down, for instance, must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.

Our own NCF Team adds:

The pushback from Russia was unsurprising; the country’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied the attack and demanded access to samples of the nerve agent used to poison Skripal. Aria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman further accused both the British government and the media of using the incident to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the UK. The Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia Sergei Stepashin also posited that it was the British security services that were behind the attack who were trying to undermine the upcoming Russian presidential elections: “It seems obvious to me that this might be the primitive work of English security services” he said “tell me who needs this traitor in Russia?”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin remained untroubled about any potential blowback. Indeed in a recent visit to the National Grain Centre in Russia, when asked by a BBC journalist whether Russia was behind the poisoning of Skripal, he simply smirked and replied “we’re busy here with agriculture […]get to the bottom of things there, first. Then we’ll talk about this.”

The incident poses an interesting challenge for the direction of British foreign policy in an uncertain pre-Brexit climate and a US ally that is now ambivalent towards Russia’s political manoeuvrings.

There are for instance clear differences between European interests and British interests; both Germany and France are moving towards closer engagement and dialogue with Russia and it increasingly looks like Britain will have to act unilaterally to effectively sever diplomatic ties with Russia. Across the pond, Trump has been unusually subdued in his condemnation; “As soon as we get the facts straight” he said, “if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

So will May stick to her promise of more extensive measures? Or will there simply be more expelled diplomats, more sanctions and more frozen assets? The answer is not immediately clear.

What is clear however is that Britain is in a precarious position in condemning extra-judicial killings, or in this case, attempted killings. The use of drone strikes to kill not just foreign citizens but also British-born citizens on foreign soil, if not by Britain then extensively by Britain’s friend the USA, allows Putin to act with impunity. After all, how can the UK condemn Russia for attacks on individuals when the Anglo-American alliance carries out its own attacks on foreign soil?

There is little doubt that if Russia is behind the attack, then it should be punished for attempting to carry out an assassination on foreign soil. But perhaps Mrs May should heed the advice of Mr Lavrov in complying with its own international obligations first, “before putting forward ultimatums.” Is it really wise for Britain to isolate itself further by severing all ties with Russia in the absence of any credible and incriminating evidence?

References

Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105521/Report17.pdf

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013
https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CSP/RC-3/en/rc3wp01_e_.pdf

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry
http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/chapter/bk9781849739696-00001/978-1-84973-969-6