The Skripal incident and Bellingcat

James Bell
Sep 22, 2018 · 23 min read

On 5 September, the British police force claimed that they had identified two Russian suspects in the Skripal investigation. The men accused — Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — were identified from CCTV footage taken from Salisbury on 4 March, the date of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s poisoning. Later that day the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, claimed that the pair were operatives in Russia’s GRU secret service in Parliament. She committed to taking further action against Russia, including taking cyber warfare operations against the nation.

Russia’s immediate response to this development in the investigation is in keeping with the tone that it has struck since the incident itself. After denying that Russia had anything to do with the two men, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, reiterated Russia’s request for a joint investigation into the matter. Since the poisoning, the Russian embassy in London has repeatedly requested such an investigation. Beyond this, it has made over 70 formal requests for information to the Home Office, the majority of which have been ignored. The following week, on 12 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the Russian state had located the individuals, and that they were ‘civilians, not criminals’. The following day, RT aired an interview with the men, in which they claimed that they were in Salisbury sightseeing:

Predictably, the British state and media responded with scorn. On the same day as the RT report was aired, the British state dismissed it out of hand and reiterated its claims that the men are GRU operatives. May called the interview ‘an insult to the public’s intelligence’ and ‘deeply offensive’. This sentiment was reiterated by politicians across the board and by the entirety of the British press. The reasons given for dismissing the RT interview by a spokesperson for the British government were simply a reiteration that the police had identified the men in Salisbury via CCTV footage and that ‘the Government is clear these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service — the GRU’.

Whilst the interview may appear unconvincing, the British reaction is clearly irrational and subjective. The reasons given by the men for their presence in Salisbury — that they intended to visit Stonehenge, but were unable to do so due to bad weather on both of the days they entered the town — are based in fact. The bus route to Stonehenge was closed on both the 3 and 4 March due to snow. No matter how quaint a desire to see Salisbury cathedral may be, a curious taste in holiday destinations is not evidence. Though Petrov and Boshirov’s presence in Salisbury appears to fit snugly into the British account of the poisoning, their alibis are entirely credible. It is impossible to prove that the story put forward by the men is not true without evidence that they are members of Russia’s GRU or that they were in possession of Novichok.

It is the former point which a report published on 14 September by the “open source” news website Bellingcat purports to prove. The report claims that Bellingcat and a Russian website, The Insider, were able to obtain ‘original Russian documents’ containing information on the passport history of Petrov and Boshirov. These documents are said to confirm a tie between the men and Russian intelligence agencies, with several abnormalities noted throughout the report. The report states that the records obtained for the two men seem to suggest that there is no record of them prior to 2009, when their passports were issued, and that this suggests that the names they were travelling under were cover-names. Petrov’s folder is reported as also bearing a stamp reading ‘Do not provide any information’ and a phone number that places the caller in contact with Russian Defence Ministry. Bellingcat also note that Petrov’s passport folder contains no information about his international passport.

Another report, published on 20 September, attempts to build upon this. It begins by stating that since the first report ‘other media have followed suit with obtaining access to, and disclosing the passport file of “Ruslan Boshirov” — the second suspect in the Skripals poisoning’. No link is provided to a source for this claim. The only source possible appears to be another Russian investigative website — Proekt — who posted about Boshirov’s passport on their telegram account on 15 September. The only images of this file appear to have been published on Twitter with a considerable degree of vitriol by accounts linked to Bellingcat:

Beyond this, the second Bellingcat report contains an analysis of the numbers on the passport documents, including a comparison between Petrov’s passport number and that of Col. Eduard Shishmakov — a former Russian Military Attaché in Warsaw expelled by Poland in 2014 for espionage. Shishmakov is also accused of overseeing an attempt to overthrow the pro-NATO government in Montenegro in 2016. The purpose of these exercises is to prove that Petrov and Boshirov are GRU agents. The report then concludes with a bang, purporting to detail Petrov and Boshirov’s flight history as evidence of prior GRU operations, outlining a hypothetical arrest of the pair in the Netherlands earlier in 2018 with a promise to follow this up in a future report.

If true, the Bellingcat reports could indicate that there is substance behind the British state’s accusations against Russia. However, in order to ascertain whether such meaning can be gleamed from the releases, we must consider the British case against Russia in its entirety, alongside the authenticity of Bellingcat’s documents and their authenticity as a source. In the next two sections I will discuss these questions, before concluding with a discussion of the significance of the political antagonism between British imperialism and Russian capitalism, and the position of communists in relation to it.

If you would like to contribute toward this work, you can do so here. For more frequent updates, make sure to follow me on Twitter.

The British case against Russia

The details of Britain’s case against Russia are somewhat difficult to grasp. This is largely owing to their transience — numerous claims made by the British have later been discarded — and the sensationalism with which they have been reported upon. I have previously written on some of the inconsistencies in the development of the British narrative surrounding the Skripal incident in the supplementary materials to my poem, The War Report. This account will focus only on the present working theory of the British state.

At time of writing, Britain’s description of the Skripal incident is thus. On 3 March, Petrov and Boshirov traveled from London to Salisbury in order to scout the area. They returned to Salisbury the following day at 11:48am with the intent to poison Sergei. Fortunately for them both he and his daughter Yulia were out of the house, Sergei’s car appearing on CCTV footage on London Road, near the Salisbury crematorium, at 9:15am. This allowed Petrov and Boshirov enough time to apply Novichok to Skripal’s doorknob using a perfume-like spray bottle at around noon. The next time that the Skripals are recorded on CCTV is at 1:15pm, when they were driving down Devizes Road toward Salisbury centre. As their movements afterwards are all recorded, the only possible way in which they could have been contaminated is if they made a trip back to the house at some point between noon and 1:15pm. After applying the spray, Petrov and Boshirov discarded the Novichok at an unknown point, which then led to the poisoning of Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess in Amesbury. The Skripals went about their business, visiting a pub and a Zizzi’s Italian restaurant before collapsing outside at around 4:15pm. At present, the British police believe that the men must have had support from the Russian Embassy and a medic, but neither accusation is backed up by any evidence. The Novichok itself may have been put together in the public toilets of the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, although this remains unconfirmed.

There are two notable holes in this account. The first is simple. Although unconfirmed, even the suggestion that the Novichok used to poison the Skripals was made in Wiltshire directly undermines the initial basis of the British state’s accusation that the culprit is Russia. On 13 March, during her second statement on the incident in Parliament, May stated plainly that the basis of the link between Russia and the Skripal incident comes from the fact that the chemical weapon found is Novichok. According to the British state, only Russia possesses the capability to produce this. From this, May concluded that ‘there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter’. This directly contradicts Britain’s claim that the nerve agent could have been made in the Queen Elizabeth Gardens’ toilet.

Whilst it would be possible to say that only one of these statements can be true, this ignores the fact that neither claim is. Samples of Novichok are likely held by every laboratory in the world and the nerve agent could easily have been created anywhere. This means that the British state was lying when it stated that ‘there is no alternative conclusion’ to Russian culpability based upon the type of nerve agent. Equally, the claim that the Novichok used to poison the Skripals could have been made in a public toilet is absurd. It is clear from even the most cursory research that whilst it may be technically possible to make Novichok without a lab, the toxicity of the nerve agent would likely kill whomever attempt to do so. Further, the residue would likely poison other people using the location where the nerve agent was made. As it seems somewhat impossible that Petrov and Boshirov had a spare hazmat suit in their backpacks and were able to scour a toilet so that any traces of Novichok were removed, this option isn’t remotely viable. This indicates that either the British state is lying or that it simply doesn’t know how Novichok came to haunt Wiltshire.

A further hole in Britain’s case emerges from an examination of the known movements of the individuals concerned. As I have already said, the only possible point at which Petrov and Boshirov could have applied a nerve agent to the Skripal’s door handle is at about noon on 4 March. The Skripals would need to have returned to Sergei’s house prior to their sighting at 1:15pm on Devizes Road in order for this to make any logistical sense, as it is known that they did not return home at any time past this point. As such, a question is raised: why didn’t the nerve agent kill the Skripals when Novichok is known to take an average of between 30 seconds and 2 minutes to take effect?

Britain has previously attempted to explain how Sergei and Yulia were able not only to avoid death, but to operate a vehicle, visit a pub and eat in an Italian restaurant without displaying symptoms after their poisoning by arguing that a sudden rain storm diluted the nerve agent. Whilst it is perfectly accurate to say that Novichok dilutes in water, this explanation makes no sense when considering the movement of Petrov, Boshirov and the Skripals on 4 March. The only rain storms in Salisbury on 4 March prior to the spotting of the Skripals at 1:15pm occurred at 12:50am and 3:50am (see above left)— that is, before Petrov and Boshirov even arrived in Salisbury.

Whilst Vil Mirzayanov — an ex-Soviet scientist who moved to the US in the ’90s and is reported as a former member of the Novichok chemical weapons programme in the Western bourgeois press — has argued that prevailing fog and humidity could have diluted the nerve agent, this also seems like a stretch. The fog Mirzayanov references disappeared between 6 and 7am. Whilst it was still humid at the time Petrov and Boshirov were in a position to approach the Skripal’s house, the suggestion here is that humidity managed to dilute the substance to such a degree that it had no effect upon either Sergei or Yulia until 4:15pm within the span of less than an hour. Mirzayanov has said that if ‘you drop [Novichok] into water in some hours no trace will be left’. That the substance takes hours to dissolve when fully submerged in water contradicts the notion that only humidity could have diluted the substance which poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal sufficiently.

It is safe to say that the movements of Petrov and Boshirov do not correlate with the notion that they used Novichok to poison the Skripals. The two most substantial pieces of evidence in Britain’s case against Russia do not fit together. Rather, they contradict each other: if Petrov and Boshirov were GRU assassins then they cannot have used Novichok to poison the Skripals as their movements around Salisbury preclude this. Likewise, if Novichok was used against the Skripals the pair cannot be responsible.

In highlighting these contradictions I wish to make it clear that the reports published by Bellingcat do not prove that Britain’s case (or even hypothesis) are correct, even if they are themselves true. The British case against Russia is considerably fractured and contradictory. Whilst the British police claim that they are in possession of enough evidence to convict Petrov and Boshirov, they must be equally aware that they are unlikely to ever be in a position in which this hypothesis can be put to the test. Russian law prevents the extradition of its citizens. By continuing to reject a joint investigation with Russia, Britain has placed itself in a circumstance in which the only way either Petrov or Boshirov will ever face trail is if they willingly leave Russia to do so. For the British, this is fortunate. As I have argued, if the information about the British case made public were to go to trial, it would come up short in at least one of two areas. Either it would lack evidence to identify a suspect or it would lack evidence to identify a weapon in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Bellingcat and authenticity

The reaction of the western bourgeois media to the Skripal incident has been that of immediately throwing any and all journalistic standards in the bin. Aside from one or two articles, the general content of the press materials surrounding the Skripal incident in the west has been utterly uncritical parroting of the British state’s positions. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the Bellingcat reports. In the wake of the first report published by the website The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, HuffPost UK, The New York Times and many others all ran reports which fail to spare a single word in considering the authenticity of Bellingcat’s work. The same phenomenon occurred following the second report, albeit in a smaller volume of articles. On both occasions, not one of these supposedly reputable publications even bothered to ask the question “how did they get this information?”.

I will begin with a simpler question: “who are Bellingcat”? The website was founded in 2014 by Eliot Higgins. Higgins had made a name for himself prior to this under the pseudonym “Brown Moses” when, as an unemployed stay-at-home father, he ran a blog on munitions used during the war in Syria. Despite not having any formal training, Higgins is credited with breaking several stories on the Syrian war, largely positioning himself in opposition to the Assad government but with humanitarian “reservations” about the violence of opposition forces. The most controversial of Higgins’ work on this blog concerns the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in Ghouta on 21 August 2013. This series of reports attempts to prove that Assad and the Syrian Arab Army are responsible for the alleged attack by collating videos, social media posts, satellite images and photographs from the war, then comparing the munitions used within them in order to identify damaged rockets in Ghouta. This is what Higgins’ phrase “open source” journalism refers to — assembling a position based upon sources that are available to all on the internet.

These reports were received as clear evidence of the Assad government’s guilt by the majority of the western world. Human Rights Watch asked Higgins to assist them with their own investigation into the attack in shortly after Higgins began to cover it, and even included images from his blog in the finished document, published on 10 September 2013. A further report, published by the United Nations on 19 September 2013, agrees with Higgins’ analysis of the attack, concluding that the rockets in Ghouta must have been fired from government held territory. Whilst this would seem to support Higgins’ conclusions, later developments dispute them. The first disagreements with Higgins’ narrative came from the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour M. Hersh, who exposed the Mỹ Lai Massacre committed by US soldiers in south Vietnam in 1968, in the form of two articles published in the London Review of Books: “Who’s sarin?” (19 December 2013) and “The red line and the rat line” (17 April 2014).

In the first of these articles, Hersh argues that the US had deliberately manipulated intelligence in order to assign guilt to the Assad government, stating that several of the anti-Assad forces in Syria have the ability to produce sarin gas. In the second, he highlights links between the fascist Erdoğan government and the al-Nursa Front, suggesting that Turkey supplied the group with chemical weapons. Higgins responded to both of these article, adamant that Hersh was wrong. An article published in The Guardian on 22 April 2014 is typical of Higgins’ response, claiming that the materials he has assembled clearly contradict Hersh’s arguments and that he relies heavily on unnamed sources. This latter point is, to an extent, fair — the validity of unnamed sources is questionable. In the absence of further evidence, who is correct becomes a matter of opinion. One either trusts Higgins’ evidence and his ability to construct an analysis out of it, or one trusts Hersh and believes his references to anonymous sources are credible.

Unfortunately for Higgins’ analysis, further evidence was available. On 14 January 2014, Theodore Postol and Richard Lloyd released a report which contradicts Higgins. The pair have considerable credentials: Postol is a professor in the Science, Technology, and Global Security Working Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lloyd is an analyst at the military contractor Tesla and a former UN weapons inspector with a considerable volume of publications to his name. The report argues that the drag produced by a chemical weapons warhead makes it impossible for it to have been fired from the location Higgins and the US government claimed. After Higgins responded to this report, speculating that the Syrian government must have taken territory to the north-west of Ghouta and insisting that only the Assad government had access to the rockets used, Postol and Lloyd addressed his claims rather explicitly in an interview with MintNews. Whilst Postol and Lloyd do not claim to know who is responsible for the attack, they are categorical in their dismissal of the Assad government’s guilt, Higgins’ analysis and the notion that only the Assad government could have produced the rockets.

  • Postol: ‘It’s clear and unambiguous this munition could not have come from Syrian government-controlled areas as the White House claimed.’
  • Postol: ‘[Higgins] has done a very nice job collecting information on a website. As far as his analysis, it’s so lacking any analytical foundation it’s clear he has no idea what he’s talking about.’
  • Lloyd: ‘I know people like to see [Higgins] as a weapons expert, but unless you crunch the numbers, you don’t know what you’re doing. Until you do the math, you’re not an expert.’
  • Lloyd: ‘ I have a section all on the rebels [on my course about the munitions used in Syria]. They have factories. A production line. They have just as much capability as anyone else in building these weapons.’

Higgins was not gracious. In the same article that he begrudgingly offered his agreement that the maximum range of the rockets is 2km, as Postol and Lloyd say, he rather petulantly attacked them: ‘with the greatest respect to the work of Lloyd and Postol I do not believe their calculations have been peer reviewed’. To date, Higgins maintains that he is correct in his assessment that only the Assad government can have been responsible for the attack, a frankly baseless claim when compared to Postol and Llyod’s analysis. Higgins now refers to both Hersh and Postol as conspiracy theorists.

Despite his work over the Ghouta attack being discredited, the press attention that Higgins received was overwhelmingly positive and he was able to found Bellingcat in July 2014 with 15 staff and a few volunteers. It was not long until the website found itself at the heart of international incident, following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014. Bellingcat immediately expanded its focus to include Ukraine, publishing one article on the day the plane was shot down and two the following day. From the start of its coverage of MH17, Bellingcat’s focus was to prove that Russia had shot down the flight.

Bellingcat’s position that Russia is responsible for the downing of MH17 is predominantly based upon two accusations. The first is best expressed in an article by Higgins published on 28 July 2014, which claims to prove that a truck carrying a BUK missile launcher and under the control of pro-Russian separatists traveled throughout the region in which MH17 was shot on the day of the attack. Subsequent Bellingcat reports claim that this missile launcher can be seen being transported from Russia to Ukraine by a Russian military convoy in the lead up to the attack. The evidence for these claims is typical of Higgins’ “open source”style — that is, a collection of photos, videos and satellite data. The second accusation is that Russia doctored satellite images it used in a press release on the downing of MH17 on 21 July 2014.

Both of these accusations are heavily disputed. Russia continues to argue that it has proof that the videos Higgins relies upon to argue that the BUK was transported from Russia to Ukraine are fake. On 17 September 2018, it sent what it claims is evidence of this to the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT). On the same day, Russia also revealed that it believes the serial number of the missile fired at MH17 proves it is Ukrainian (see below). Higgins insists that the footage is not fake. He has yet to respond to the allegation that the serial number links the missile to Ukraine.

Where the question of the BUK videos may be an open one, the accusation that Russia doctored its satellite images is impossible to prove and again demonstrates a lack of understanding on Bellingcat’s part. In an interview with the German newspaper Spiegel on 4 June 2015, image forensics expert Jens Kriese clearly outlines why the method of analysis used to make this accusation is unable to prove it. Bellingcat used what is known as Error Level Analysis in their treatment of the satellite images. This analyses an image in order to detect compression artifacts, which Kriese describes as ‘the small deviations created when a photo is saved in JPG format — differences from the original’. These are not detectable in colour and whether or not they represent a manipulation when detected is down to human discretion. This is why, as Kriese puts it, ‘there is not a single scientific paper that addresses [this method]’. Kriese goes on to say that it is obvious the images must have gone through Photoshop before publication, as they featured in a presentation, and that no-one attempting to doctor an image would use this software. Higgins, he says, is doing ‘nothing more than reading tea leaves’. This position is shared by Neal Krawetz, the founder of — that is, the website used by Bellingcat to analyse the images. He described Bellingcat’s approach as ‘how not to do image analysis’.

Despite these clear problems with Bellingcat’s investigation into the downing of MH17 and Higgins’ history of misinterpreting evidence, a press release given on 28 September 2016 by the JIT references the Bellingcat reports on MH17 positively before presenting a speculative scenario which mirrors that produced by the website all but identically. There is very little evidence in the report and, like Bellingcat, the JIT rely heavily on anti-Russia Ukrainian sources. As in the instance of the Ghouta attack, Higgins’ and his team’s work was accepted as truth with little or no scrutiny.

Before moving to discuss the documents recently released by Bellingcat in regard to Petrov and Boshirov, it is crucial to highlight a further aspect of the website’s history. Bluntly, Bellingcat and Higgins have established, public links to the Atlantic Council. Founded in 1961 with the purpose of drumming up support for the NATO alliance, the Council today continues to act as a force by which legitimize imperialist intervention across the globe in academia. It also serves as a powerful lobbying group to NATO, by which sections of the bourgeoisie are able to push their strategic thinking. Whilst it is impossible to know exactly when the Council began to court Higgins, the link certainly dates back at least as far as 2015, when he co-authored a report for their website on Russia and Ukraine. By the February of 2016 these links had fully solidified, with Higgins assuming the role of senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and Future Europe Initiative. One of the stated objectives of this latter initiative is to develop ‘the next generation of American and European, including Russian, leaders’ [emphasis added]. In other words, one of its stated objectives is to overthrow the Russian government and install one cultivated to be compliant with US interests. Higgins continues to hold these roles today.

With this context in mind, we may now consider the reports issued by Bellingcat on Petrov and Boshirov. Contrary to Higgins’ earlier approaches, there is nothing remotely “open source” about either report. Both ask us to accept that Bellingcat has been able to secure confidential Russian documents, which have not been published in full. This is somewhat ironic given Higgins’ previous attempt to vilify Hersh’s use of anonymous sources in his reporting around the attack on Ghouta. It also runs counter to comments Higgins made to The New Yorker in a profile of him published on 25 November 2013. Speaking in relation to the Ghouta attack, Higgins here recalls the ethical problems he felt he faced when approached by anti-Assad forces who approved of his work. Here Higgins says that he felt the use of anonymous sources ‘ruined the purity of what [he] was doing’ as ‘you can’t say, “O.K., here’s a link to me talking to this person”’. Clearly, he no longer possesses such lowly concerns as referencing.

Flagrant hypocrisy aside, the lack of any identifiable source behind the Bellingcat reports on Petrov and Boshirov means that there is simply no way in which to conclusively verify their authenticity. What “evidence” is included in the posts would be incredibly easy to manufacture. For example, the only “evidence” in the first report consists exclusively of grainy scans of what is alleged to be Petrov’s passport photo, a screenshot of a spreadsheet that could easily have been put together in Microsoft Excel and another grainy scan showing a stamp in Russian which translates to say ‘Do not provide any information’. Not only would all of this be easy to fake, there are two clear ways in which this could have happened. Higgins has clear motive to attack Russia based upon his ties to the Atlantic Council and the damage that Russian responses to his work could have on his future career. If he or Bellingcat did not manufacture this “evidence”, it is entirely possible that a third party may have done so. As I have shown, an examination of Higgins and his website’s prior publications reveals that they aren’t quite the experts they’re claimed to be.

Significantly, this problem with the reports clearly does not appear to have escaped Higgins’ notice. On 15 September, the day after the first report’s publication, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, stated that Bellingcat had failed to prove anything and accused them of being a ‘special agency, which is leaking misinformation under the cover of investigations’. This was then reported by the Russian news agency TASS. Higgins promptly shared the TASS article on Twitter, seizing upon the linguistic formulation ‘leaking misinformation’ within Zakharova’s statement to suggest that she had stated that Bellingcat had received hacked files (she claimed no such thing), thus confirming that the documents published on the website were authentic. This is an extremely clumsy attempt to grant the reports authenticity by forcing words into the mouth of an opponent.

Aside from the lack of referencing in the reports, at least one of their claims does not stack up against what is even possible in reality. For example, the first report makes the claim that Petrov and Boshirov made last minute plans to travel to England, indicating this by a review of what is claimed to be Aeroloft’s passenger manifest. The intent of this is to show that the pair lied in their RT interview when they stated that they had been planning to visit Salisbury for a long time. The claim made to counter this by Bellingcat is that the passenger manifest indicates that they only booked their tickets at 10pm the night before they traveled, thus showing that they had made their travel plans with great haste. The problem here is quite simple: a ticket on an airline does not grant anyone access to another country, nor do Russian citizens have the right of free movement into Britain. In order to actually get out of the airport, both Petrov and Boshirov would have required visas. Bellingcat’s claim that they only planned to travel to Britain the day before they did so is rendered quite literally impossible by this observation. A quick look at the British government’s website reveals that the fastest that the pair could have secured a visitor’s visa to Britain is within two days, but this is not guaranteed by any particular service and only happens 12% of the time.

Whilst I cannot say for certain whether or not the reports published by Bellingcat are untrue, there is substantial reason to suspect that this is the case. The reports are not referenced, there is no way to verify the information contained within them and there are observable holes in what information is there. Further, Higgins and Bellingcat’s historical actions clearly demonstrate that they aren’t the most reliable source, and their links to the Atlantic Council give clear explanation as to why they may have attempted to manufacture such “evidence”. Without clearly verified, concrete evidence to identify the information produced by Bellingcat as authentic, there is no way in which the website’s reports can be treated as evidence. They prove nothing.

Shock therapy: British imperialism, Russia and the position of communists

British imperialism is plunging toward ruin. This is as a consequence of its position as an imperialist power during the post war boom (1945–1974) and the economic period of imperialist expansion known by bourgeois economists as “globalisation” (1974–2016). Over these periods, Britain was able to act as a diplomatic and economic bridge between US imperialism and the EU imperialist bloc. As a consequence of the US’ inability to maintain the dollar as the world’s currency anchor and the hardening of relations between the US and the EU subsequent from this development, Britain is unable to remain in this role. The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum signaled that the British bourgeoisie will likely now be forced to seek closer ties with the US if they intend to maintain Britain as an imperialist power.

That Britain is unable to maintain itself as such independently is evident from the forecasts for a no-deal Brexit, something which may swiftly become living reality. Britain is hugely reliant on trade from the EU, importing around a quarter of its food supply from the bloc. Aside from this, it is becoming increasingly clear that Britain will be unable to maintain its financial sector, which dominates the British economy with a value around 560% the size of British GDP. On 13 September the governor of the bank of England, Mark Carney, forecast that the value of Britain’s housing stock would fall by between 25 and 35% in the event of a no-deal. By July 2018, the total value of British housing stock stood at £8.2 trillion. A fall in value of 35% would, therefore, mean that around £2.8 trillion would be wiped of the market. The worldwide economic collapse which would inevitably follow such a loss is of an unfathomable scale. Its national implications are simple: the end of the British empire.

As such, the British bourgeoisie are desperate. As the predatory NATO campaign against Russian capitalism had previously served as clear point of unity between those imperialist powers that constitute the transatlantic alliance, Britain is now determined to lead. Since the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal took place on 4 March, Britain has used the incident to warmonger against Russia incessantly. Both of the nation’s major bourgeois political parties — Labour and Conservative — are committed to this course of action. Whether the hope that its alliances will pull through such a campaign of aggression will bear fruit remains to be seen. The US is a particular concern. It is unreliable, its bourgeoisie engaged in a bitter internal struggle between two distinct factions: one, headed by Trump, which favours confrontation with other imperialist nations and the other, led by the Democrats, which favours war with Russia. Nevertheless, answers may not be far away, with Trump scheduled to discuss the Skripal poisoning at next week’s UN Security Council. We may be approaching the brink.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explores a particular tactic of the imperialist bourgeoisie, developed by the fascist US economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s. The notion is that by overwhelming a population with shock, one can seize the opportunity and put in place policies that may otherwise have been opposed. It matters not if the shock is created by a staged or an authentic event, merely that one seize the moment. As I hope the information I have written here and elsewhere demonstrates, this is precisely the tactic that British imperialism is employing in its handling of the Skripal case. Who is genuinely responsible for the Skripal poisoning is utterly irrelevant to the British bourgeoisie — they are seizing the moment.

The position of communists toward the Skripal incident is very simple: Britain is using the poisoning to further an entirely predatory imperialist campaign. Irrespective of who is responsible, this campaign must be opposed resolutely and Russia’s sovereignty defended. As the world marches forward into the blood-drenched horizon, it is the task of communists to point toward another path: socialism.

No war on Russia!
Down with British imperialism!
Socialism or Barbarism?


James Bell is Marxist-Leninist writer, artist and critic. They host the Marxist art podcast AgitProp.

If you would like to contribute toward this work, you can do so here. For more frequent updates, make sure to follow James on Twitter.

James Bell

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Marxist-Leninist writer, poet & critic.

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