Responding to Skripal: the benefits of a public inquiry

By Dr Robert Downes

In March this year, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was attacked with a Soviet-era chemical weapon agent in Salisbury, a bucolic town in the west of England. The official investigation is seeking to identify the perpetrators. Prime Minister Theresa May has been clear: based on the available evidence, either the attack was a ‘direct action by the Russia state…or the Russian government lost control [of a] catastrophically damaging nerve agent.’

As the latest in a string of obscure and sometimes unconventional killings with a Russian connection on British soil, the attack is significant cause for concern. However, despite a firm, growing, and increasingly public evidence base, claims of Russian complicity have been met with denial, dissimulation, and distraction.

From a policy perspective, understanding why Russia is responding in this way is a crucial question. In answer, we need to examine Russia’s counter-narrative strategy.

Russia’s counter-narrative strategy

The Russian authorities are akin to a rogue defence attorney in a police procedural, with the aggrieved state playing the prosecution and the public the jury. Like a good defence lawyer, Russia throws doubt on the prosecution’s case. However, no attempt is made at consistency or uniqueness. A dizzying array of alternative theories are offered. Peter Pomerantsev notes that Russia

switches messages at will…the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support.

The jury is left confused. In the court of public opinion, it is unclear who is culpable.

Counter-narratives are Russia’s stock in trade. The 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine is a case in point. The multinational Joint Investigation Team established the aircraft was struck by a missile fired from a mobile BUK air defence system. The BUK was of Russian origin and was moved into Ukraine before the strike. It returned to Russia afterwards. It appears likely Russian forces are implicated.

Russia disagrees. Strenuously. At a post-crash press conference a Russian official stated that MH-17’s flightpath was deliberately moved into the conflict zone, pro-Ukraine rebels operated the BUK system, the Ukrainian airforce were involved, and a different pro-Ukraine rebel-held air defence system was used instead.

These claims don’t cohere into a single counter-narrative. They are contradictory, offering competing explanations of the same event. When under pressure, according to Pomerantsev,

instead of a single truth, [the Kremlin] spits out contradictory conspiracy theories. The effect is to leave the viewer so confused and demoralised that he gives up on trying to find a ‘real’ version.

The Russian response to the Skripal affair is a repeat performance. Alternative explanations are spun from a myriad sources. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that the chemical makeup of the Salisbury poison absolves Russia of responsibility despite independent confirmation of UK analysis. Russian TV has supported countless alternative theories in its domestic and international programming. Russia’s army of followers on social media has swung into action in the aftermath of the attack.

The cacophony of voices undermines the UK government’s version of events. Unforced errors make this easier, but the highly-coordinated counter-narrative strategy is the principal issue.

Seizing the narrative: the Public Inquiry

The UK should deny Russia success in its counter-narrative strategy. An independent public inquiry is one way of achieving this aim.*

Public inquiries don’t just establish the truth. They render complex and uncertain crises understandable by establishing a coherent narrative. This narrative is monological and hegemonic: it leaves no space for alternatives. This depoliticises controversy, legitimises damaged institutions, and comforts an disquieted public.

The Litvinenko Inquiry shows this can work. After the 2006 killing, the absence of an explanatory narrative encouraged endless speculation. Experts expressed uncertainty about the poison. Russian involvement was repeatedly questioned. Pleas for caution in reaching judgment fell on deaf ears. The public was presented with a confusing picture which opened the door to Russian disinformation.

In assembling the available evidence into a compelling narrative, the Inquiry provided a good explanation of events that was readily accepted by the public. It effectively apportioned blame, going so far as a qualified attribution of culpability to Vladimir Putin. (Putin’s involvement was “probable” rather than certain, which is not a finding of fact.)  By recognising the Metropolitan Police Service’s “exemplary investigation,” the Inquiry legitimised the actions of state security agencies while reassuring the public. This depoliticised the killing. Focus shifted to the UK’s response to Russian aggression.

The implications for the Skripal affair are clear. If the UK government is confident of its case, an independent public inquiry can produce an authoritative account of the attempted assassination. This will apportion blame, halt damaging speculation, and comfort a distressed public. Crucially, this narrative can overpower insidious alternatives sown by Russia’s counter-narrative strategy. This will deny Russia the success it seeks over the long-term.

Halting the killing spree will be challenging. But we can ensure the public are in no doubt that Russia is responsible.


*This post was stimulated by a recent piece by Marcus Shepheard, The attack on Sergei Skripal – let’s have a public inquiry.

Dr Robert Downes is a Research Associate at the Policy Institute.

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