The West increases pressure with diplomatic expulsions, but Russia is unlikely to cave



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Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop announce the expulsion of two Russian diplomats.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have declared two Russian diplomats personas non grata – in other words, they are expelling them from Australia.

The decision to expel the pair is a show of solidarity with the UK over the assassination attempt on two Russian nationals, former Russian colonel Sergei Skripal (who was recruited by British intelligence) and his daughter Yulia, in the small city of Salisbury on March 4.

In a joint statement, Turnbull and Bishop said the two diplomats were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, and are now required to leave Australia within seven days.

This is a rare move. However, it is not the first time Australia has expelled Russian diplomats implicated in covert intelligence activities. In mid-1993, Australia secretly expelled six Russian diplomats on “suspicions of spying”.




Read more:
Sergei Skripal and the long history of assassination attempts abroad


Historically, Australia was of strong interest to Soviet and Russian intelligence.
There were several reasons for this, including Australia’s close security and defence ties to the US, the UK and other NATO countries, and its access to highly sensitive intelligence as part of the Five Eyes agreement.

Australia also has access to advanced military technology provided by its allies. It plays an important role in the US-led Asia-Pacific anti-ballistic missile defence.

In recent years, Australia’s intelligence community has expressed concern about the extent of Russian and Chinese intelligence-gathering activities in the country.

Posting a serving intelligence officer to work under a diplomatic cover is a common practice of various intelligence agencies, particularly those that do not have special agreements concerning the legal presence of intelligence personnel in a country of interest. Russian intelligence services, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service SVR (sluzhba vneshnei razvedki – political and economic intelligence) and the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU (glavnoe razvedyvatel’noe upravlenie – military intelligence), engage in such practices.

Diplomatic cover provides an intelligence operative not just with diplomatic immunity. It also gives an operative a legal right to engage with various groups of a targeted nation, from political and business elites to fellow diplomats, journalists, social activists, academics, and community groups.

Counterintelligence agencies have ways of identifying such operatives and tracking their activities, including contacts with key local stakeholders. Expelling identified, undeclared intelligence officers is common practice when a country wants to showcase a robust response and a clear political message to its political opponent. In this case, it is Russia.

Identifying the two diplomats as spies sends a powerful message to Russia and its intelligence services. But the world of intelligence is a never-ending game of shadows, with its own rules, codes of conduct and practices.

Australia expects that, in return, Russia will declare at least two Australian diplomats from its embassy in Moscow personas non grata. It is likely the Russians will use the same logic as Australia in choosing who to send home.

By keeping the pressure on Russia, the West is trying to alter Russia’s strategic behaviour, reducing the impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness has caused to the US-led rules-based order.

There is also a clear attempt to weaken Russia as a strategic competitor, as the world’s number-two military power, by making its economy bleed under sanctions. But what effect might this latest round of confrontation create?

Certainly, the expulsion of some 130 Russian diplomats/suspected intelligence operatives will curtail Russian intelligence operations across Europe, North America and Australia.




Read more:
Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler


However, we should not underestimate the potential of Russian intelligence services. It is likely they will restore their intelligence-gathering capacity very quickly. Russia has a proven global intelligence-gathering capability, and the expulsion of some 130 agents will not undermine it in the long run.

Also, only 23 countries have followed the UK’s response against Russia. About half of EU member countries have not joined in the action so far. Some major powers in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, including China and India, have kept their distance. That makes this new round of Russia-West confrontation a war of yet another “coalition of the willing”.

Russia is unlikely to back down to pressure from the West, nor will it admit its alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on Skripal. The investigation into the attack continues, and no final conclusions have been drawn yet.

We should also recognise that the West has seriously underestimated the level of Russian resilience to sanctions as well as its ability to challenge the US-led rules-based order.

In terms of future steps, Australia might reconsider the level of its involvement in the upcoming football World Cup, which will be held in Russia in June-July this year. However, it is unlikely the Australian team will boycott the event.

More targeted sanctions may be imposed, but these actions are likely to trigger a counter-response from Russia. Already, Russia-Australia bilateral trade has gone down: the level of bilateral economic trade was A$687 million in 2016, down from A$1.837 billion in 2014. If Russia is to take further economic counter-sanctions against Australia, it may choose to target Australia’s agricultural exports.

Neither Australia nor Russia consider high-level political dialogue with one another a priority. Yet maintaining some form of a dialogue is important.

Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is a member of several key international organisations that are critical to Australia, including the G20 and APEC. Russia plays a critical role in the ongoing war in Syria and crisis in Ukraine, the war against Islamic State, in curtailing the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran, and in stabilising Afghanistan.

Cutting ties with Russia or suspending dialogue with it on some key international security issues such as combating terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or North Korea would not contribute to global stability.

The ConversationThe Australian government decided to show decisiveness, determination and strong resolve. Australia has once again shown its strong support and solidarity with its key allies such as the UK. But let’s hope the government shows the same consistency, resolve and determination next time other major powers undertake reckless activities, such as China’s strategic gaming in South China Sea.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia expels two Russian spies as part of international push against Russia



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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.
AAP/Joel Carrett

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Australian government is expelling two Russian spies as part of a broad international retaliatory action against the nerve agent attack on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain earlier this month.

The diplomats have been “identified as undeclared intelligence officers”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement on Tuesday morning. “Undeclared intelligence agents” are spies.

More than 20 Western countries, including the US, EU countries and Canada, are expelling more than 100 Russians, in a dramatic escalation of the push against Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May told the UK parliament this was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.

Turnbull and Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.

“This decision reflects the shocking nature of the attack – the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area, endangering countless other members of the community,” they said in a statement.

“It takes into account advice from the UK government that the substance used on 4 March was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. Such an attack cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation.

“We strongly support the call on Russia to disclose the full extent of its chemical weapons program in accordance with international law.

“This attack is part of a pattern of reckless and deliberate conduct by the Russian state that constitutes a growing threat to international security, global non-proliferation rules against the use of chemical weapons, the rights of other sovereign nations and the international rules-based order that underpins them,” the statement said.

Turnbull briefed Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who immediately backed the action.

“I have spoken to the security agencies. I am very supportive of this measure,” Shorten told reporters.

“These are undeclared agents and so therefore it is inappropriate that they be in Australia.”

Asked whether he believed it was beyond doubt that the Russians were involved in the nerve agent attack, Shorten said “our security agencies have that view and therefore I think this is a proportionate action today”.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in a critical condition.

Update:

The Russian embassy issued a statement saying: “It is astonishing how easily the allies of Great Britain follow it blindly contrary to the norms of civilised bilateral dialogue and international relations, and against the common sense. The modern world is not in a stage when it is possible to dictate anything to anybody, regardless of the nostalgia for past grandeur in certain capitals.”

The statement said that “neither the Russian side, attempt on which citizens’ life was made, nor other states possess impartial exhaustive information about the ‘Skripal case’”.

“Such flagrant and primitive campaigns as the ‘Skripal case’ that are crudely orchestrated by London, could only trigger further erosion of international relations architecture on which peace and security in the whole world during the post-war period were rested.”

Further update

The ConversationRussia’s ambassador in Canberra Grigory Logvinov dodged the question of whether the Russians expelled are spies. “No ambassador would give you an answer, and actually ask your authorities how they could judge who is a special agent or not. Within my embassy, there are only career diplomats,” he told the ABC.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What we know about Novichok, the ‘newby’ nerve agents linked to Russia


Martin Boland, Charles Darwin University

A Soviet-designed “Novichok” chemical is the nerve agent responsible for poisoning a former spy and his daughter, British Prime Minister Theresa May said today.

Sergei and Julia Skripal were found collapsed on a park bench on Sunday March 4 in the English town of Salisbury, a few hours after eating lunch and spending time at a restaurant and pub nearby.

As reported by the BBC, May said the UK must stand ready to take “extensive measures” if Russia does not provide an adequate explanation for the use of this agent on British soil.




Read more:
Nerve agents: what are they and how do they work?


What are the origins of Novichok?

The Novichok group of molecules are nerve agents developed by the Soviets from the late 1970’s – but never produced on a large scale, at least to the best of public knowledge. They are referred to as third generation nerve agents to indicate their production as a follow-on to the G-series agents such as sarin (also referred to as “GB”) developed in Germany prior to WWII, and the V-series agents (such as VX gas) first developed by the UK in the 1950’s.

The name “Novichok” translates colloquially from Russian as “newbies”.

Scientists who worked on the Novichok project disclosed details from 1992 onwards. They stated that the project goals included developing weapons that:

  • could not be detected by the then standard NATO chemical weapons detection sensors

  • have potential to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention

  • would be easier to produce using methods and materials prevalent in pesticides industries

  • were designed from the outset to be “binary” chemical weapons (where two relatively non-toxic materials are mixed together just before dispersal to minimise the danger to the personnel delivering the weapons).

How would Novichok use be confirmed?

Members of the public said that Julie Skripal appeared passed out on the park bench in Salisbury, and her father was making strange movements with his hand. The two remain in a critical condition in hospital.

Nerve agents like Novichok are all organophosphate compounds, which act by blocking the normal processes that control nerve activity.

Symptoms are given the mnemonic “SLUGEM”:

  • Salivation – the famous “foaming at the mouth”

  • Lacrimation – “crying”, or tears pouring from the eyes

  • Urination, Defecation

  • Gastrointestinal distress

  • Emesis (vomiting) – as the body loses control over muscles, particularly those of the sphincters

  • Miosis – one of the key diagnostics; the muscles that cause the pupil to constrict become fully activated and the pupils become pinpoints in the iris.

The final “‘M” is sometimes given as “muscle spasms”. The type of spasms associated with organophosphate poisoning are somewhat diagnostic.

Although some of these symptoms are common with other nervous system disruptions, doctors are taught to look for these symptoms together as a sign of exposure to organophosphates.




Read more:
Explainer: what is VX nerve agent and how does it work?


Apart from the physical signs and symptoms, to confirm identity of the agent, police and doctors take blood or other fluid samples, or wipe the patient’s skin with a gauze to pick up any residue of the agent. Those samples are reasonably stable and could be sent to an analytical chemistry laboratory for identification.

The UK has an Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) designated laboratory run by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Chemical and Biological Systems. The lab is located at Porton Down, around 10 miles from the scene of the attack.

In Australia, the equivalent OPCW designated laboratory is operated by the Defence Science and Technology Group.

The Handbook of Recommended Operating Procedures for Analysis in the Verification of Chemical Disarmament (also known as “the Blue Book”) does not have a specific method for detecting Novichok agents. However, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be detectable by the methods available to a well equipped defence science laboratory.

How could Novichok have been administered?

Nerve agents such as sarin are typically used in the form of a gas or vapour. But Novichok agents can be made in a solid form, most likely a powder. This would make them a relatively simple agent to be used on a battlefield (as may have been the original design motivation), or to add to food or to be left in a home as may be the case with the Skripals.

Nerve agents are bioavailable from the gut – that is, they can absorb into the body after being eaten. That route of delivery isn’t well studied, but is consistent with the slightly slower onset of symptoms in Sergei and Julia Skripal.

In comparison, nerve agents administered via aerosol or spray are effective very quickly – Kim Jong-Nam died shortly after facial exposure to nerve agent VX in a Malaysian airport.

Novichok agents are said to be particularly effective at penetrating the central nervous system (that is, the brain and spinal column) and causing more severe neurological symptoms than is typical for other nerve agents.

As well as Sergei and Julia Skripal, a policeman has become seriously ill as a result of this incident – it’s not clear whether this was through attending to the sick pair on the bench, or visiting Sergei Skripal’s house.

Furthermore, the UK government has issued a public health advisory notice for people who were in the pub and/or the restaurant at which the Skripals may have been poisoned. For people who may have been exposed to very small amounts of Novichok, the advised washing of clothing would act to dilute or deactivate the compounds.




Read more:
Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler


Will the ex-spy and his daughter survive?

A reported case of accidental exposure of a Russian physicist to Novichok in 1987 described the following events:

He staggered out of the room, his vision seared by brilliant colors and hallucinations. He collapsed, and the KGB took him to a hospital.

By the time he arrived his breathing was labored. In another hour, his heart would have stopped. His entire nervous system was gradually ceasing to function.

The physicist was lucky. The hospital he was taken to, the Sklifosovsky Institute, includes the nation’s top center for poison treatment.

There, Dr. Yevgeny Vedernikov saved his life.

But the scientist was at the edge of death, unaware of his surroundings, for 10 days. He couldn’t walk for six months. He was dogged by depression and an inability to concentrate. He found it difficult even to read. To this day his arms are still weak, and he has never been able to return to work.

Although he survived, the gas left him with permanent disabilities.

This previous incident suggests that while the Skripals could theoretically recover, they may not be in a fit state to act as reliable witnesses to their own attempted murders.

The question of who was responsible will remain – although British Prime Minister May has come to the conclusion that,

Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

The ConversationWe’re waiting for an official Russian response.

Martin Boland, Senior Lecturer of Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, Charles Darwin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.