But where are the Australians?
Not many questions are easier for scientists and policymakers than this: What did Russia do, in breach of international law, to enable the West to unanimously agree in July that it was the cause of the deadly nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia? And by “override” what do you mean? Simply admit that you wronged somebody who wasn’t you and then take one last stab at justification, but not quite. As long as Russia didn’t resign itself to the offer of a joint investigation (which would mean tying to admit culpability), it could win points for co-operation. But Moscow refused to join.
Russia’s unstinting attacks on investigations into the Skripal attack started early. Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell said on CNN that it was impossible that it was the UK that had staged the attack. Accusing Britain of conspiring to kill Sergei Skripal was irresponsible, but Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, followed on Twitter and said that it was “also equally irresponsible to suggest it’s made it up, paid for it, or even conspiratively engineered by the UK to benefit Russian interests.”
Russia’s allies also have mixed messages about its culpability. President Donald Trump tweeted on Aug. 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin “vehemently denies” his country had anything to do with the Skripal poisonings, but that a special counsel investigation (which is really a form of investigation), had to be allowed to continue. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on July 29 that he thought Russia was the target of an international conspiracy against it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a media conference in August that the Skripal case was “shocking,” “lonely,” and that “allegations that Russia carried out this operation will be examined carefully.”
Russian government statements made it clear that it knew who was behind the poisoning. In August, several senior Russian officials expressed unequivocal culpability. Alexander Olegovichovich Litvinenko died in November 2006 after drinking tea laced with polonium-210, a radioactive substance found in the backyard of the estate where he was staying, according to Britain’s Foreign Office. Robert Wright, a Washington Post journalist, wrote, “Litvinenko’s murder was cleared by the Russian secret service, the FSB, but its former chief, Alexander Bastrykin, has since escaped punishment. In an interview last year with BBC World Service, Bastrykin confessed that he had done it.” He didn’t run for government office in Russia. Neither did two other officers who he had ordered to poison Litvinenko.
Putin has not been shy about his position on the Skripal poisoning. In October, he denounced Theresa May, the prime minister, who sanctioned 17 individuals for their alleged participation in the attack, as “barely fit to serve as the head of the state.” In a four-part, televised interview on Nov. 13 and 18, he refused to change his positions, despite an unexpected change in tone from the British leader earlier in November. Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had said that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack, and gave Putin a chance to admit he was wrong and demand an investigation. But the Russian president denied responsibility and refused to confirm the existence of toxic materials on British soil.
On Saturday, investigators discovered the first Omicron variant on a Moscow-bound Aeroflot flight. In a statement, the Russian Investigative Committee said the plane, Aeroflot Airlines Flight SU2554 from Johannesburg to Moscow, had a passenger list that matched the one of the Skripals.
Since the incident in Salisbury on March 4, Russia has sought to prevent the proper identification of the nerve agent (the West has called the substance Novichok). The most hostile reaction came when Britain last month published its evidence for the poison’s culpability. It showed photos of three bits of a white powder, two of which matched the known Novichok compound of Novichok-210. The third didn’t. These three missed the mark.
“I believe that it was a mistake by the London-based scientists,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told the Russian state television channel Vesti-24.