LONDON—The Russian state has unleashed an online campaign of false information after the UK published proof that the novichok nerve-agent attacks in Salisbury were carried out by Russian assassins.
The British government has identified dozens of false narratives created by Russia and its proxies that push back against allegations that agents of the Russian GRU military intelligence service are behind the attack, according to The Times of London.
The narratives that are being spun range from the relatively rational to the ludicrous.
They include claims that the attack was a false-flag operation to justify increased military spending in the UK, or that Britain wanted to denigrate Russia out of jealousy that Moscow got to host soccer’s World Cup tournament.
Britain, Allies Blame Russia
The British government, backed by allies Canada, France, Germany, and the United States, said that two Russian spies are responsible for the attack, allegedly by spraying the nerve agent on the door of Skripal’s house.
“We have full confidence in the British assessment that the two suspects were officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU, and that this operation was almost certainly approved at a senior government level,” a joint statement reads. Britain and its allies also pledge in the statement to work to disrupt “the hostile activities of foreign intelligence networks.”
Besides the assassination attempt itself, the irresponsible disposal of the toxin that one expert, cited by the Independent, called “possibly some of the most dangerous things that humans have ever made, after the atom bomb,” has also been the subject of outrage.
“The recklessness of the Russian state in bringing a nerve agent into the UK, and total disregard for the safety of the public, is appalling and irresponsible,” said Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed Sept. 4 that Novichok was used in all the poisonings.
The Skripals survived the attack, but an English couple, one of whom died as a result, accidentally came into contact with the discarded poison, which was concealed in a specially-manufactured container that resembled a perfume bottle.
Scotland Yard and the Hit Plot
On Sept. 5, British police published a detailed exposition of the Russians’ movements in the UK, along with a set of images purporting to show the two would-be hit men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, at various stages of the assassination plot.
Moscow has officially denied any involvement in the attack, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov calling May’s allegations that Russian senior leadership signed off on the hit on Skripal as “out of the question” and “unacceptable.”
British government sources have said that besides making formal denials, Russia has been orchestrating an extensive campaign of conspiracy theories aimed at casting doubt on Britain’s case.
Officials Identify 37 False Narratives
British authorities have identified 37 separate disinformation campaigns and linked them to Russian entities, according to The Times of London.
One fake information campaign being pushed by Russia-backed entities, according to British government sources, is that photographs of the suspects were faked.
The Russian embassy in the UK posted a tweet on Sept. 6, of two side-by-side images captioned “How many differences can you spot?” with one showing the two suspects walking along a street shortly after they allegedly sprayed the toxin on Skripal’s door, and another of British workers in hazardous materials suits handling substances potentially contaminated by the deadly nerve agent.
Men "working with the most deadly military grade toxin of high purity”. How many differences can you spot? pic.twitter.com/OLFZWBJLsC
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) September 6, 2018
Another disinformation campaign being spread, according to British authorities, is that the poison couldn’t have been safely contained in a perfume bottle.
Scotland Yard has published photographs of the bottle, inconspicuously labeled as “Nina Ricci Premier Jour” and bearing the words “Made in France,” and noted that the container had been specially designed to be leakproof and had a custom applicator. This would have allowed agents to handle the toxin with minimal risk to their own safety, particularly if they had an antidote handy and applied it as a precaution.
Novichok is a Soviet-era nerve agent developed in the 1970s and 80s for military purposes and is one of the most deadly weapons available.
Russian state media have also claimed that the poisoning was a suicide attempt or a drug overdose, pointing to the fact that addiction and stress are a relatively common occurrence among defectors.
Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was exchanged in a Kremlin-approved spy swap in 2010 after spending time in a Russian prison for being a double agent that exposed dozens of spies to Britain’s MI5 service.
Yulia Skripal insists she and her father were attacked and were “so lucky to have survived this attempted assassination.”
Other narratives include claims that the whole affair was a cover-up for a toxic leak from a nearby defense laboratory, or that Yulia Skripal was the true target and that her boyfriend’s mother did it because she didn’t want her son to marry into the family of a double agent.