Today, the Government of Russia was officially accused by Prime Minister Theresa May of the recent chemical attack in Great Britain, but are there any facts on which this accusation is based?

By fact I mean some true evidence or some proof, something that can be taken as proof in some sort of International Court of Justice, e.g., people who organized this attack, their motivation to perform the attack and so on.

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    yes, the chemical analysis of the compound shows that it is a compound only produced by the Russian government. This also according to one of the people the helped create it: reuters.com/article/us-britain-russia-scientist/… Now, if you start asking only about evidence that is publicly available (i.e., a random person analysed that chemical compound), that's shifting the post. – Federico Mar 14 '18 at 14:20
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    You might like to consider that the majority of evidence in criminal cases is usually circumstantial, so even the fact that one of the victims of the attack was a Russian former Military officer, previously convicted of spying for the British would be admissible, although of course proof of motive isn't necessary to obtain a conviction. – origimbo Mar 14 '18 at 14:30
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    Identifying a chemical is not necessarily equivalent to be able to produce it. Our friends at chemistry.SE can give you the details. – Federico Mar 14 '18 at 14:40
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    Asked a question at chemistry.se - chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/92311/… – Jacobian Mar 14 '18 at 15:05
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    @Federico Stack Exchange was created just to get rid of such half-answers and "just my opinion", see for example "If you would like to answer the question, please post a real answer which adheres to our quality standards." – pipe Mar 14 '18 at 21:55

By fact I mean some true evidence or some proof, something that can be taken as a proof in some sort of International Court of Justice, like - people who organized this attack, their motivation to perform the attack and so on.

There is no such thing as an International Court of Justice for this kind of incident (there are ad hoc war crimes tribunals established for whole wars, as well as a less ad hoc International Criminal Court that does basically the same thing, and there is an impotent International Court of Justice that pretty much limits itself to boundary disputes).

In general, disputes between sovereign nations, and particularly those involve alleged hostile action, aren't subject to the same kinds of rules of domestic criminal justice. It is often much easier to determine which government is responsible for hostile action than to determine which individual did it. But, that's fine, because nobody is trying to hold the individual responsible, only the government that authorized the action.

To start with, disputes between sovereign nations are inherently about collective, rather than individual, responsibility. The perpetrator may have been acting lawfully pursuant to lawful military orders by the standard of his home country.

Equally important, decisions made by sovereign nations about violations of treaties or legal standards aren't made in courts, they are made by heads of state and senior executive branch government officials. These are violations that must be responded to in time frames inconsistent with the slow, bureaucratic criminal justice system that is available when a government has total control over the defendant and the overall situation. Instead, they are good faith decisions made based upon credible evidence.

This is the only way to secure accountability in an imperfect world.

In this case, the very unique method of the killing which is singular to the Russian government, the identity of the victim, a history of past similar incidents by the same perpetrator, and ominous pronouncements short of a confession by official media, together are a clear enough indication to justify action by the UK Prime Minister and cabinet officials (e.g. expelling 23 Russian diplomats and imposing other sanctions) without serious risk of being found to have been mistaken later on.

A similar process was used to justify a retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime by U.S. forces for chemical weapons usage.

Mistakes are made in this mechanism for truth finding in disputes between sovereign governments which can be catastrophic. The most obvious case in point was the Iraq War which was based upon false allegations. But, out of necessity, this is the epistemological foundation of international decision making.

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    Technically speaking, all the claims made in the resolution supporting the attack on Iraq were true. – Acccumulation Mar 14 '18 at 21:08
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    @Acccumulation The Iraq war was largely justified politically by the assertion that it had WMDs. It didn't. The evidence supposedly supporting that claim wasn't credible either. – ohwilleke Mar 15 '18 at 21:50
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    @Jacobian The issue is not that military grade chemical weapons, in general, aren't manufactured by countries other than Russia. It is that this particular military grade chemical weapon with a particular chemical signature, which it was determined by U.K. forensic chemists to have, isn't manufactured by any other country, so its place of origin is clear. – ohwilleke Mar 20 '18 at 0:38
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    @ohwilleke It was manufactured in Uzbekistan that is independent since 1991. It also had about 5 years of US "disarming" program at that site - plenty of time to get existing samples or make new ones. Iran created a sample for analysis in 2016 too (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novichok_agent). So, any more "only Russia can make it"? – Oleg V. Volkov Mar 23 '18 at 2:00
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    ".. the case for Russian responsibility is still overwhelming.." - the "evidence" largely consisted of a provocatively arrogant refusal of the british government to provide any details to Russia about the incident, and of the british government de facto refusal to follow diplomatic norms. Seen in the larger context of relentless defaming and vilfying western media attacks on Russia and its people, it is actually an evidence against Russia's government involvement, since it looks like the incident was planned and used for specific purposes (e.g. demonstrative expelling of Russian diplomats). – John Donn Sep 14 '18 at 9:29

The circumstantial evidence is strong. It was probably the Russians.

There is no definitive evidence in this case, but it is early days yet.

We have good evidence that the old Soviet government developed this class of chemicals for use as chemical weapons (western powers seemed to stop production of the related compounds VX and sarin in the late 1960s but Soviet development and manufacture is thought to have continued into the 1980s with Novichok agents). So, the likely source of the compound and the expertise to use it is Soviet. Arguably, a post-Soviet state might have acquired some or a rogue agent, but this both seems unlikely (we certainly hope it is unlikely) and it is hard to see any motivation for its use.

And Russia has form in the UK for attacking defectors. The polonium 210 used to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko was eventually tracked and pointed very clearly to Russia and specific Russians who are now being protected by Moscow. Nerve agents and the ingredients required to make them are harder to track so the same level of proof may never emerge. But the circumstantial similarity in the nature of the attack is strong.

The final circumstantial evidence relies on the cui bono test (that is who benefits from the act?). There are few good options. There is a clear benefit for the Russians: it sends a signal that potential defectors or collaborators will never be safe no matter where they are in the world. The risk trade-off for Russia is that they may face some sanctions (but they already face quite a few and don't seem unduly bothered, it isn't like the reaction to the strong evidence on Litvinenko cost them much they cared about). Other agents might just benefit: if some anti-Russian state (say Ukraine, for example) could stage the event to pin some opprobrium on Russia, they might see that as a benefit, but they would have to be fairly sure that the cost to Russia would be high to make it worthwhile. The Litvinenko case suggests it wouldn't bother the Russians too much. Someone (if the Russian media hasn't already) will argue the UK could have done it as a false-flag operation. But, again, the benefit is likely extremely small given the Litvinenko case. The Russians are the only potential perpetrator with much of an upside.

Put these together and the finger points at Russia. Nobody else has credible motive or opportunity.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 17 '18 at 5:55
  • "There is a clear benefit for the Russians: it sends a signal that potential defectors or collaborators will never be safe no matter where they are in the world." That is just speculation. If so, why was he sentenced to only 15 years less 2 for poor health? An American who betrayed numerous colleagues would get centuries. – Keith McClary Apr 6 at 4:29

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