Questions and theories on the Salisbury nerve agent attack | Letters

Readers reflect on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter

If President John F Kennedy’s 1963 assassination had been handled as the British government has done with the Skripals’ poisoning (Editorial, 15 March), dozens of Soviet diplomats would have been expelled, trade arrangements and contacts with the Soviet Union would have been cancelled, and Soviet ships docking at US ports would have likely been seized. After all, Kennedy’s alleged assassin had resided in the Soviet Union and had long been married to a Soviet citizen. And, since months earlier the alleged assassin happened to have visited a Cuban consulate in Mexico to apply for a visa – which he was denied – the US embargo on Cuba would have likely been tightened. To his credit, President Lyndon Johnson – unlike Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson – called for an investigation and avoided voicing any conclusions beforehand, while refraining from pressuring allies to blame the Soviet government.

There are many questions on the Skripal case that deserve answers, that only a thorough investigation can provide. Why was Mr Skripal living in Salisbury, and did he have any recent dealings with MI6, the British repository of chemical or nerve agents said to be located nearby, or Russian mobsters? Did Britain not long ago stock the nerve agent novichok and (if so) what controls were in place at the time of the incident? Was Skripal re-enlisted by British intelligence to assist or spy against diplomats or the Russian government? What motive would the Russian government have for eliminating a former intelligence officer who was supposedly inactive, living a life of quiet retirement? And – regarding sovereign rights – did MI6 not violate Russian sovereignty when it recruited Mr Skripal as a spy – in Russian territory? Why would the poisoning be carried out barely a week before Russian presidential elections, and would it not reflect negatively on Mr Putin’s candidacy? Could it be more than mere coincidence that the British government’s failure to advance the Brexit negotiations affected its handling of the Skripal case?
Luis Suarez-Villa
Professor emeritus, University of California, Irvine, US

• Corbyn is absolutely right to call for a criminal inquiry into the horrific nerve agent attack in Salisbury. If only the response to the attack in the US on 11 September 2001 had been treated as a criminal attack rather than the opportunity for war it is hard to imagine that we would be in the terrible and terrifying situation that we now face globally. Surely a call to slow down and consider the evidence carefully is exactly what is needed.
Quentin Isaac

• There are few things as dangerous as a weak person trying to appear strong. Corbyn is right to be sceptical of May. If she sees this as her Falklands moment – the chance to turn round her deep unpopularity and domestic failures – she could lead us into an abyss. This is a time for cool heads, not knee-jerk reaction and bluster.
Charles Barker

• The Russians may be the prime suspects for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury but where is the hard evidence? In February 2017, North Korean dissident Kim Jong-nam was killed by a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport. The poison used was VX, which was developed in the UK during the 1950s. Does this mean that Kim Jong-nam was killed by British agents? That would be nonsense. Sadly there are many countries that have the capacity to develop nerve agents. Some of those countries may have a vested interest in seeing a return to the cold war. We need our political leaders to take considered decisions based on facts rather than conjecture and political opportunism.
Paul Burke
Beverley, East Yorkshire

• The PM has announced that one of her follow-up escalations in the current political crisis with Russia may be to withdraw the England football team from the upcoming World Cup. I’m just wondering what mandate would she have to do this? When the Thatcher government in 1980 tried to stop British athletes going to the Moscow Olympics, the sporting bodies almost unanimously said that the opportunity to meet and compete with other athletes was more important than being used as a short-term political pawn. Perhaps someone can provide some legal clarification on this proposition.
David Reynolds

• If the government truly believes there was a Russian hit squad on the streets of Salisbury, and wishes to bring its members and collaborators to justice, what is the logic behind deporting 23 potential suspects?
Dave Headey
Faringdon, Oxfordshire

• Nice to see Jeremy Corbyn and Simon Jenkins (Opinion, 16 March) literally and metaphorically on the same page.
Ted Pitt
Taunton, Somerset

• Margaret Hodge’s article (We don’t have to be a haven for kleptocrats, 17 March) is very revealing of the disparity in the treatment afforded to wealthy individuals and the ordinary people of Britain. I was unaware that arrangements using Scottish limited partnerships allowed, essentially, anonymous financial transactions to take place within the UK.

In contrast, dealing with simple financial matters relating to the estate of my late mother-in-law required my wife to provide passport copies, bank statements and driving licence among other documents simply to register an interest, as executor, in bank, savings accounts and other small investments. Omission of any one is unacceptable and legal obligations made clear before processes can be advanced. Banks’ fear of accusations of money laundering and the law correctly make for zealous treatment of the ordinary citizen.

It beggars belief the government have been resistant to changing the rules equalising matters. Why is it they allow hot-money transactions to have favourable anonymous status? Are well-placed powerful individuals implicated in these and similar schemes and able to frustrate fairness to maintain their financial advantage? Is our nation so impoverished and needy of foreign cash that a blind eye is cast?
Richard Price
Brockenhurst, Hampshire

The tit-for-tat response by Putin’s administration to the UK’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter on English soil is both unsurprising and depressing. The expulsion of 23 British diplomats by Russia in return is one thing, but the loss of the British Council is another and on a completely different scale. The British Council reached over 19 million people in Russia (over 13% of the population) in 2016-17. The council promotes the English language and culture in Russia and has engaged 30,000 teachers in its programme. This has led to a far greater understanding of Britain in Russia and has increased visits from Russia to the UK and has helped increase trade between our two countries.

The knee-jerk response from May’s government would, therefore, appear to have backfired. Nobody is condoning what the Russian secret serves have allegedly done, but surely Britain’s Russian ambassador and similar experts should have warned Mrs May of the consequences of her actions and encouraged her to take a more considered and subtle response to this matter. I hope this is not the start of a new cold war between the countries. Only an increase in mutual understanding and in sports events and in anything which brings the countries together will produce a better relationship. May’s response has had the opposite effect.
Jonathan Cockburn
Hewelsfield, Gloucestershire

• Jeremy Corbyn has come under fire for suggesting that attributing the Skripal attack to Russia requires a careful study of the evidence prior to reaching a definitive conclusion that the attack was state-sponsored. However, while it does seem unlikely that Russia is innocent in this matter, Corbyn’s comments invite the question “Could anyone else have done this”? In contradiction to the official position that only one Russian laboratory ever produced them, it now appears that within the general scientific community these novichok agents have been quite extensively studied. In order to do this, of course they have also been synthesised by these researchers.

It became clear that this must be the case when Porton Down managed to identify the obscure and (supposedly) previously unused agent relatively quickly. This indicated that they must have had detailed spectrographic “fingerprints” available to them. While of course this might have been available to them via top-secret defence research, it turns out that they could simply have reached out to the internet.

As it happens, two Iranian scientists helpfully provided this exact information to the scientific community last year. Their motives of course were entirely benign. They wanted to assist in the detection of the use of WMD and novichok agents that had not previously been fingerprinted for this purpose. We therefore have clear evidence that these agents were already known to the wider scientific community and had been synthesised. Indeed, the scientists concerned have published a detailed research paper in which they helpfully show exactly how they did it. If two researchers in a standard laboratory can do this, it’s hard to believe the government assertions that only a nation state could have produced these agents.

Unfortunately, as with atomic weapons, there’s no putting the genie back into the bottle. We have to live with the consequences. Only, therefore, by severely punishing Russia for this incredibly irresponsible action, can a message be sent to other nation states, who increasingly in recent years have shown themselves willing to flout the international conventions on the use of chemical and biological weapons. We will also have to put a much closer watch on the precursors for these new agents.
Andrew Mayo
Cookham Rise, Berkshire

• Disappointing from the Guardian to have the headline “Western allies rally to UK… ” (16 March). Don’t you think it’s time we dropped these cold war and even more ancient precepts of a distinct west and east, deriving in parts from much older traditions of Roman and Barbarian, Greek and Persian etc. I am sure some allies in the geographic east are equally appalled by Russia’s alleged actions on UK soil. These simplistic labels only serve to reinforce an “us and them” approach to the world which works against consensus and inclusive political dialogue – something we could use much more of these days.
Eve MacDonald

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