Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series.
The Russians have long been known for their witty yet dark sense of humor. “The need to suffer is an inherent feature of Russians throughout the ages,” wrote Dostoyevsky, but from this comes the ability to make light of even the most serious of problems. This is seen on the world stage with Vladimir Putin’s trademark “your inferiority amuses me” facial expression, his wry reaction to the Trump collusion scandal, and now, the country’s response to ongoing accusations that Russian agents are responsible for recent chemical poisonings on British streets with the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok.
What other culture would respond by serving “Novichok” cocktails to English tourists during the World Cup, or copyrighting “Novichok” brands of alcohol, household cleaners, and pharmaceuticals for domestic use?
The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English town of Salisbury in March quickly lead to accusations that Russia was responsible for the use of the Novichok nerve agent on British soil. While most mainstream media outlets were quick to jump on board with the blame game, others, including authors at Liberty Nation, found some aspects of the narrative rather questionable.
Although no direct evidence was used to support the British government’s accusation, other than the fact that the chemical had originally been formulated in the Soviet Union, the result was that 28 countries expelled a total of 152 Russian diplomats. NATO expelled seven diplomats from the Russian mission to Brussels, while the U.S. ejected 60 diplomats – more than any other country, including the U.K. – and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle “in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, as they say, and indeed Russia responded to each country in turn; 60 American diplomats were expelled and the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg was closed.
A Second Poisoning
A second incident brought the Novichok poisonings back into the press; this time, two English citizens with no apparent connection to Russia appear to have been poisoned by accident. In June, two residents of Amesbury, a town seven miles from Salisbury, where the first incident occurred, were struck down with the same chemical used against the Skripals.
It may be noted that both towns are also in close proximity to the secretive Porton Down Ministry of Defense laboratory, which, according to the U.K. National Archive, has long been a chemical and biological defense research lab. It was also the lab that analyzed the substances found at each crime scene and identified them as Novichoks.
Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were reportedly poisoned with Novichok on June 30; while there has been some confusion about the source of the poison, it now appears the substance was concealed in a glass perfume bottle that Rowley – a drug addict who frequently went “bin diving” – found. He reportedly gave the perfume to Sturgess, his girlfriend, who fell ill after spraying the substance on her wrists. She died a week later, on July 8. Rowley also became sick after the bottle broke in his hands and is currently being held at an undisclosed police facility, despite being discharged from hospital. Indeed, one curious aspect of both poisonings has been the public absence of the victims.
On July 20, Charlie Rowley was discharged from Salisbury District Hospital, almost three weeks after being poisoned with Novichok. Hospital staff and Public Health England assured the public that Rowley’s release posed no danger to the community and the regional Wiltshire Police Chief Constable, Kier Pritchard, publicly welcomed Rowley’s release.
Not two days later, however, Rowley appears to have been tucked away into a top-secret police safehouse with no access to the outside world, apart from phone communication with his brother. According to Matthew Rowley, Charlie was banned from watching television and reading newspapers, and has been given a special phone – without camera or internet – with which he could call his brother.
“He rang me and said he’s being driven stir-crazy. He’s being kept in a plain room without TV or newspapers because they don’t want to upset him… Police have said he mustn’t say anything about where he is – all he told me was that he was safe.
It was a short conversation because nurses said I shouldn’t wear him out. He sounded really weak, almost as if he’d been drinking too much. He sounded pretty fed up… He’s been given a strange new number which doesn’t always connect. I’ve only been able to speak to him once. I’m hoping I’ll be able to find out where he is and visit him soon.
He said he was too tired to talk. He seemed like he was on some really strong medication… It was really frustrating for me because I haven’t really got any detail from him.”
If Rowley poses no risk to the public and is well enough to be released from hospital, why is he holed up in a police safehouse with no access to the outside world? There may be valid reasons to keep him hidden for investigative purposes, but why limit his access to the media? If Rowley was poisoned by accident, and not specifically targeted, then why does he require continued police protection?
Sergei and Yulia Skripal have also been curiously absent since their own hospital discharges, so much so that Russian OPCW representative Alexander Shulgin claimed they’re “being held hostage by the British authorities.”
Yulia, a Russian citizen, left the hospital on April 9. Her release was followed by a statement from Scotland Yard, apparently on her behalf. It rejected any assistance from the Russian consulate and asked that her cousin, one of her closest family members, not be in touch. Nothing more has been heard from her, except for one media appearance in May when she spoke to Reuters at an undisclosed location. She said:
I’m grateful for the offers of assistance from the Russian embassy but at the moment I do not wish to avail myself of their services. Also, I want to reiterate what I said in my earlier statement, that no one speaks for me or my father, but ourselves.
Yulia’s father, Sergei Skripal, was released from hospital on May 18, but neither hide nor hair has been seen of him. Are the Skripals laying low for fear of further attacks, possibly from their own motherland? Or is there another reason that they have declined to tell their story? And why is Charlie Rowley being kept from his home and family, despite hospital blessings?
Police continue to investigate both poisonings.
No further sanctions against Russia have been announced as a result of the second Novichok incident, but U.K. Home Secretary Sajid Javid recently accused Russia of using the U.K. as a “dumping ground for poison.” Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, went so far as to call the use of Novichok a “war crime” by Russia.
The U.K., the U.S., and dozens of other countries all leaped to the conclusion that Russia must be one and only responsible party for these attacks on British soil – but is there any evidence to back up this claim? Stay tuned for Part Two, where we look at exactly who had access to this deadly chemical weapon.