The way the US has been repeating warnings every few days about possible chemical or biological attacks by Russia suggests to me that they continue to intercept intelligence that this is a real possibility. It’s not clear what combination of things might happen – a straightforward attack by Russia on Ukrainian military or civilians, a false-flag attack, or a sabotage event, say of a railroad tank car full of ammonia, and attributed to Ukraine.
Or the purpose of the warnings could be to undermine the Russian claims that Ukrainian laboratories are developing chemical and biological warfare agents. Or a combination.
Deciphering the likely intelligence behind the warnings is more difficult than the Sovietology of who stood next to whom to review the May Day parades.
Russian propaganda calls the laboratories Pentagon-funded. That’s partly true. How that happened goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s a great story that hasn’t been told well, and I can present only a small part here.
The US information war slowed down a couple of weeks ago, and Russia hastened to fill the space with claims about Ukrainian laboratories developing chemical and biological weapons. This dovetailed with some of the many claims made by the Q cult and also those pushing the idea that SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a laboratory. All that was needed was to transferthe claim from China to Ukraine.
It was a good choice for Russia and almost took off. Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard are still pushing it. But it’s been refuted a number of times, including in the United Nations Security Council, and seems to be dying down.
US government sources are speculating that Russia was pumping the biolabs story in preparation for a chemical weapons attack of their own that they would attribute to the Ukrainians, which may well be true. But chemical weapons are marginally useful in war; biological weapons have never been developed to that point. Speaking of them, however, can damage civilian morale.
Alexei Navalny is a Russian critic of the Putin government. He was nearly killed by a Novichok nerve agent in August. Yesterday, he talked to the FSB agent who poisoned his underwear and got a full confession.
Bellingcat is an investigative organization that developed out of Eliot Higgins’s investigations of Syrian munitions, particularly nerve agent munitions, when he blogged as Brown Moses. They worked with CNN and Navalny in this operation.
The German hospital treating Alexei Navalny says that he was poisoned by a cholinesterase inhibitor. That’s a poison in the same family as nerve agents, but not necessarily a nerve agent. Some insecticides have the same characteristic, and there are other compounds as well. Identifying exactly which it is may be difficult after the time that has elapsed since he was poisoned.
The good news is that they say he is in a medically-induced coma and likely to survive. But cholinesterase inhibitors can damage the body in multiple ways, and nobody knows what damage he will sustain.
So it’s likely another poisoning by the Russian government. Their use of poison seems bizarre, but it’s a reminder to people that the government can reach down very personally to people it doesn’t like.
You may be familiar with the bellingcat organization. Eliot Higgins started looking at and identifying munitions in Syria on a blog called Brown Moses, which he used as a pseudonym for a while. He was profiled in the New Yorker in 2013.
I have been interested in open-source intelligence for a long time. I started with an unclassified problem: how to find trash burial sites at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for potential cleanup. We did a bunch of work with overhead photos and other data, data fusion as it was called at the time. We hired some folks to do infrared photography – the burial pits would collect water and be a lower temperature than surrounding areas. Read More
The OPCW concluded that the chemical agent used on the Skripals in Salisbury, England was “concluded that the chemical substance found was of high purity, persistent and resistant to weather conditions.”