Category: National security

From a nerve agent attack to a nuclear threat in 3 days – the very worrying collapse of international diplomacy

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Another Russian exile, Nikolai Glushkov, who was close friends with the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky has been found dead, aged 68, in his London home.

Counter terrorism officers are leading the inquiry into his death. They have said  that there was no evidence to link it to events in Salisbury, though it has been treated as ‘suspicious’. So far this year, deaths registered for men aged 65-74 in England and Wales have averaged 1,179 a week (according to the Office for National Statistics data).

Amber Rudd, the home secretary, decided to announce an inquiry into allegations of Kremlin links to 14 other deaths in Britain in the past two decades. 

The prime minister was said to be confident last night that she had succeeded in rallying key European and US allies before a meeting of the National Security Council to be followed by a statement to the Commons this afternoon. 

One very worrying comment in the Times caught my eye: “On Monday the prime minister cleared the way in a statement to MPs for a cyberattack on Russia as she challenged President Putin to explain how a ‘Russian’ toxin came to be used on British soil.” However, Robert Hannigan, the former director of GCHQ, warned against a cyber-offensive because of the likelihood of escalation.

“Starting a cyberconflict is not in anyone’s interests,” he said. “We need to be sure that anything we do is consistent with our values.”  

That the prime minister felt such a blatant act of aggression and provocation was appropriate at all is VERY concerning, given the fact that she has refused to share the evidence that her allegations are based on with Russia, and has refused to permit Russia to contribute to an inquiry. 

Earlier this year, defence think tank Chatham House warned that US, British and other nuclear weapons systems are increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks. The threat has received scant attention so far from those involved in nuclear military planning and the procurement of weapons.

It blames this partly on failure to keep up with fast-moving  technological advances, lack of skilled staff and the slowness of institutional change.

“Nuclear weapons systems were developed before the advancement of computer technology and little consideration was given to potential cyber vulnerabilities. As a result, current nuclear strategy often overlooks the widespread use of digital technology in nuclear systems,” the authors of the study said.

Nuclear weapons systems are vulnerable and at risk from hostile states, criminal groups and terrorist organisations exploiting cyber vulnerabities. The report goes on to say:

At times of heightened tension, cyber attacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation, which results in their use.

“Inadvertent nuclear launches could stem from an unwitting reliance on false information and data. Moreover, a system that is compromised cannot be trusted in decision-making.”

At best, cyber insecurity in nuclear weapons systems is likely to undermine trust and confidence in military capabilities and in the nuclear weapons infrastructure.

“At worst, cyber attacks could lead to deliberate misinformation and the inadvertent launch of nuclear weapons.

“In times of crisis, loss of confidence in nuclear weapons capabilities would factor into decision-making and could undermine beliefs in nuclear deterrence – particularly in extending nuclear deterrence to allied countries.”

The report, titled Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems: Threats, Vulnerabilities and Consequences, said the issue required “urgent attention” from the governments of nuclear-armed states and those that could be affected by the use of nuclear weapons.

Chatham House also urged governments to be open about their discussions, adding: “After all, it is the public that will pay the ultimate price for complacency regarding cyber security of nuclear weapons systems.”

Counter terrorism policing statement

The UK’s head of counter-terrorism policing has issued a statement regarding the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. Neil Basu, speaking at Scotland Yard, said:

“We are exploring all investigative avenues. This includes extensive CCTV footage from across the city and over 380 exhibits so far.

In particularly I’m appealing for anyone who saw Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Sergei’s car which is a red BMW with a registration plate: HD09 WAO, in the Salisbury area between approximately 1pm and 1.45pm on Sunday 4 March.

The police are going to continue to see a great deal of police activity in and around city, including potentially more cordons being erected. But please don’t be alarmed. It is necessary as part of this major investigation. In truth it may last many weeks.

It is a painstaking operation to identify anyone of interest and eliminate them or include them, but at this stage we are not declaring person of interest or a suspect at this time.”

No mention of ‘the Russians’, then.

Novichok nerve agents 

Image result for skripal poisoning

It was certainly a nerve agent that was used in the attack on the Skripals. The raw materials to make such chemical weapons are inexpensive and generally not difficult to obtain. 

Novichok nerve agents – also known as the “N-series” – were secretly developed by the former Soviet Union beginning in the 1970s. They followed the “G-series” of nerve agents made by Germany in the 1930s and the “V-series” made by the UK in the 1950s. Novichok means “newbie” in Russian. There are no previous reports of the Novichok nerve agents being used in battle or assassinations. However, Andrei Zheleznyakov, a Russian scientist involved in their development, reportedly died not long after being exposed to a small amount that leaked out of a rubber tube in the laboratory.  

The scant details that we know about these agents are largely based on reports from Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who exposed the Russian chemical weapon development programme in 1991. However, he never gave any formulae or protocols for synthesis of this deadly class of chemical agents that he referred to. 

Nerve agents are made from two precursor chemicals that are mixed together just before use. These precursors could be made at pesticide or fertiliser manufacturers without arousing any suspicion at all, as this class of chemical weapon is made with organophosphates as a key component. Some insecticides, including carbamates organophosphates such as dichlorvos, malathion and parathion, are nerve agents. At high enough doses, acute toxicity and death can occur through the same mechanism as other nerve agents. 

As binary chemical weapons are those which contain the toxic agent in its inactive state in the form of chemical precursors, which are significantly less toxic than the agent itself. Using precursors improves the safety of storing, transporting, and disposing of the weapon. Commonly, when used, the barrier between the two precursors is removed. These compounds then react to form the intended toxic agent. 

The Russians created two main types of Novichok nerve agent – A-230 and A-232.  We know these are chemicals that also contain carbon and phosphorus like the G-series nerve agents – which includes sarin, tabun, soman, and cyclosarin, and the V-series – which includes VX, VR, VE, VG and VM. However, their exact structures have allegedly remained a mystery in the West. 

As stated, A-232 (also called Novichok-5) is an organophosphate, like many pesticides. Phosphates are not listed among the controlled chemicals on the Chemical Weapons Convention lists. The Novichok class of agents were reportedly developed in an attempt to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Treaty (chemical weapons are banned on the basis of chemical structure and therefore a new chemical agent is not subject to past treaties). Novichoks have reportedly been engineered to be undetectable by standard detection equipment and to defeat even standard chemical protective gear, it has been said.

According to Mirzayanov, both the Novichoks are binary agents, meaning they are made from two precursor chemicals that are mixed together just before use  He also said that many of the less potent derivatives were reported in the open literature as new organophosphate insecticides, so that the secret chemical weapons programme could be disguised as legitimate pesticide research. Mirzayanov confirmed that Novichoks all feature an organophosphorus core.

Nerve agents are a class of organic chemicals that disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to organs. The disruption is caused by the blocking of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that catalyses the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitterNerve agents attack the nervous system, muscles are prevented from relaxing, so they spasm are effectively paralysed. This includes the heart and the muscles used for breathing. Because of this, the first symptoms usually appear within seconds of exposure and death can occur via asphyxiation or cardiac arrest in a few minutes. 

Initial symptoms may be excessive sweating, a runny nose, tightness in the chest, and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim will have difficulty breathing and will experience nausea, involuntary, excessive salivation and fluid accumulation and sometimes, blistering, in the lungs – often producing frothing at the mouth – burning, watering and sometimes blistering eyes, gastrointestinal pain and vomiting. This phase is followed by initially myoclonic jerks (muscle jerks) followed by status epilepticus – type epileptic seizure. The effects of nerve agents are long-lasting and increase with continued exposure. Survivors of nerve agent poisoning almost invariably suffer chronic neurological damage and related psychiatric effects. 

Atropine and related anticholinergic drugs act as antidotes to nerve agent poisoning because they block acetylcholine receptors, but of course, they are poisonous in their own right. Pralidoxime chloride, also known as 2-PAM chloride, is less toxic but it works more slowly than other antidotes.

No standard test exists for Novichoks. It’s possible to detect exposure to nerve agents more generally by checking blood samples to monitor any significant decrease of activity of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. However, UK intelligence agencies must have knowledge of the exact Novichok structures, otherwise they would not have been able to detect a match, as claimed. 

It is generally considered impossible to cure people who are exposed to it. Novichok is reported to be 5–8 times more lethal than VX nerve agent and effects are very rapid, usually within 30 seconds to 2 minutes. How it was deployed in the attack on the Skripals remains unclear.

At the moment, there is no evidence that Russia was not respecting the treaty that has come to the attention of the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Russia has previously destroyed quite a large amount of its chemical weapons stock – more than 400,000 tons. 

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said during a televised press conference earlier that Russia was not responsible for the poisoning and demanded that Britain seek to mediate the case under the chemical weapons convention. 

He said: “We have already made our statement on this case. Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention.”

Lavrov also remarked that under the convention, Russia would have 10 days to reply to an official accusation by the UK over the use of a banned substance within its borders.

Russia summoned the UK’s ambassador to Moscow to protest against accusations that it ordered last week’s nerve agent attack in Salisbury and to warn that any British sanctions against Russia would be answered in kind. 

The prime minister said in parliament on Monday that the UK would consider punitive measures if Russia did not meet a (rather unreasonable) deadline of the end of Tuesday to explain itself. Possibilities include revoking the broadcast licence of the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, expulsions of diplomats, or greater scrutiny of Russian investments in the UK.

The Russian foreign ministry said: “Any threats to adopt ‘sanctions’ toward the Russian Federation would not remain without a response.”

Among other measures, Moscow is ready to ban all British media outlets if London revokes the state-funded Russia Today’s right to broadcast in Britain, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said on national television on Tuesday evening.

Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they close Russia Today,” Maria Zakharova said. 

A foreign ministry statement said it had summoned Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador, to also declare that Russia would not comply with Theresa May’s demand that it explain its role until the Russian government had been given samples of the nerve agent that left the Skripals critically ill.

“Without this, any statements by London are senseless,” the ministry said in the statement given to journalists.

Meanwhile, May is preparing to chair a meeting of the national security council after the midnight deadline she set Moscow passed.

The prime minister is said to be preparing to set out a range of reprisals against the Russian state, including calls for fresh sanctions, visa bans and crackdowns on Russian money in the UK. She is expected to set out plans to build a coalition of international support – from the European Union, NATO and even the United Nations. However, given Brexit, Europe’s response is quite likely to be limited when it comes to practical support and retaliation.

Until Tuesday evening, Donald Trump had remained silent over the Kremlin’s “probable role”. However, he has since told Theresa May in a phone call earlier today that his support is conditional on the facts supporting her case. Downing Street said Trump had agreed that “the Russian government must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used”.

The problem with the ultimatum is that there is a possibility the nerve agent did not come from Russia. 

Only one senior member of Trump’s administration had acknowledged that Russia may be responsible: Rex Tillerson. On Tuesday, however, Trump fired Tillerson as secretary of state, possibly underlining that May is likely to receive little or no help from the US. Not that Trump’s brand of ‘diplomacy’ would be of any value to us, things are fraught enough without any further bragging about big red buttons.

The Russian Embassy have said that “Britain must comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention which stipulates joint investigation into the incident, for which Moscow is ready.”

That seems fair, but the UK government have refused to permit such a joint investigation so far.

The Russian Embassy said Moscow will only respond once it is given access to samples of the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals. Again, the UK government has refused. There will have to be a degree of negotiation to escape the current impasse, otherwise the situation will simply escalate into one of increasing hostilities, provocation, retaliation, retaliation and more retaliation. This is the signposted, short and deadly road to war. 

Is the UK government playing provocation roulette with Russia?

The complete breakdown of diplomatic relationships has already led, it is reported, to a warning issued from Russia that the UK should not threaten a nuclear power last night, as tensions mounted ahead of an announcement today of measures against the Kremlin.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, was quoted as saying “one should not threaten a nuclear armed country.” 

Russia Slams UK PM’s ’Circus in Parliament’ on Skripal Poisoning Case

Maria Zakharova

There are many things that world leaders should not do or say. History is littered with the destruction and devastation of precious, ordinary human lives caused by the disregard and lack of conscience of those in positions of power. But that doesn’t ever seem to stop them, and always, it seems, to our utter surprise and horror.

There has been a dangerous escalation in both rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons and military strategy recently. For example, Vladimir Putin’s state of the union address earlier this month, showed a mock-up missile seemingly heading for the coast of Florida. Last year the British government disclosed that under certain (undefined) circumstances, nuclear strikes would be considered, even if our nation wasn’t under direct nuclear threat.  

Donald Trump has pledged to “spend freely” on upgrading the American nuclear arsenal. Last month, a review of nuclear “posture” set out plans to develop new “low-yield” nuclear weapons and for the first time consider nuclear strikes in response to non-nuclear threats – such as a devastating cyber attack. Russia has long possessed smaller nuclear weapons, with a military doctrine that conceives of their tactical use to counter conventional threats.

However we are witnessing a departure from a deterrence policy towards first strike posturing at a global level that could significantly lower the threshold for nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons protect no-one. They reflect an era of leaders who regard the lives of others as somehow expendable, including their own citizens. This disregard for the lives of others by those in positions of power and privilege shapes so much human suffering, it reflects everything that is wrong in the world.

“Cutting edge nuclear deterrence”, according to Trump’s most recent posture statement, apparently requires “tailored strategies” and “flexible capabilities.” These are not new concepts. They sound reasonable enough. Until we see that the flip side of deterrence is detonation. Tailored strategies and flexible capabilities require assigning nuclear weapons to “targets.” You can reason that most targets will probably be military  bases or ports and so on. At first. However, even one nuclear detonation will release radioactive material that will inevitably travel to densely populated areas, unconstrained.

The logic and cohesion of nuclear posture reviews break down when we shift from the declaration part to the operational level of nuclear deterrence. What are the humanitarian consequences of targeting plans for nuclear weapons? And how is escalation to be controlled once the nuclear threshold is crossed? See?

Because nuclear orthodoxy cannot withstand public scrutiny, especially on the fundamental questions of humanitarian consequences and escalation control, citizens in nuclear states seek refuge underneath the warm, comfort blanket statements of deterrence. Our personal comfort depends on presuming that deterrence is somehow robust and safe.

However it is fragile.

Recently I have written about the elements of human error, such as misinterpretation of mundane events such as solar flares, moon rises, intelligence miscalculation, and near accidents – the close calls we have somehow managed to survive so far. These events demonstrate what a fine margin of error there is and just how fragile the boundary actually is between deterrence and the sudden blinding, instant, searing heat followed by an utterly devastating blast and a mushroom cloud composed in part from the dust of corpses and crushed buildings,

It should be unthinkable for any person in a position of power to make such a horrific threat. Not so long ago, it would have been, in the age of ‘nuclear deterrence.’ But now we have the leaders of superpower states casually hint at first strikes, mentioning their nuclear buttons and arsenals whenever they feel like blowing off steam. 

In the event of a nuclear exchange, the UK government will be cowering in underground fallout shelters, as no doubt will Trump and the Russian officials. If that wasn’t so, I think perhaps they may hesitate before posturing so aggressively and potentially, catastrophically, while bargaining and bullying with lives of respective populations.


I did some further research following on from this observation I made: “No standard test exists for Novichoks. It’s possible to detect exposure to nerve agents more generally by checking blood samples to monitor any significant decrease of activity of an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase. However, UK intelligence agencies must have knowledge of the exact Novichok structures, otherwise they would not have been able to detect a match, as claimed. 

I came across Craig Murray’s latest article on novichok, which also makes similar and some addition observations.

In summary, he says:

1) Porton Down has acknowledged in publications it has never seen any Russian “novichoks”. The UK government has absolutely no “fingerprint” information that can safely attribute this substance to Russia.
2) Until now, neither Porton Down nor the world’s experts at the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were convinced “Novichoks” even exist.
3) The UK is refusing to provide a sample to the OPCW.
4) “Novichoks” were specifically designed to be able to be manufactured from common ingredients on any scientific bench. The Americans dismantled and studied the facility that allegedly developed them. It is completely untrue only the Russians could make them, if anybody can.
5) The “Novichok” programme was in Uzbekistan not in Russia. Its legacy was inherited by the Americans during their alliance with Karimov, not by the Russians.

You can read Craig’s full article here.


PM says ‘highly likely’ Russia is responsible for nerve agent attack, without any conclusive evidence

From the age of nuclear ‘deterrence’ to an era of first-strike posturing – a creeping escalation



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PM says ‘highly likely’ Russia is responsible for nerve agent attack, without any conclusive evidence

The prime minister says that it has been concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

May revealed that experts at Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory, coincidently very close to where the attack happened, have confirmed the Salisbury poisoning involved “highly-specialised” and “military grade” Novichok, first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s. 

Updating the Commons earlier today, the prime minister explained that as a result of the nerve agent being found to be military grade Novichok, it is “highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the act against ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which also left Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in a serious condition and parts of the medieval cathedral city closed off.

She also says the Russia was likely to be responsible for the attack because of Russia’s “history of involvement in state-sponsored attacks of this kind.” 

However, the Kremlin has denied involvement, while the Russian embassy accused Britain of playing a “very dangerous game” and warned of “serious long-term consequences.”  

Moscow responded, saying Theresa May’s words were “another political information campaign based on a provocation”, and has branded the prime minister’s suggestion that Moscow was “probably” behind the Salisbury poisonings as a “circus show”.

The spokesperson from Moscow also added, cryptically: “Before making up new fairy tales, let the British disclose how the Litvinenko case ended.” 

Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. It seems that Russia is pointing an accusation back at the UK. 

A former Kremlin adviser, Alexander Nekrasoff, has said that the nerve agent is “possessed by about 16 countries in their laboratories”.

“Why do I know this?” he added. “Because that’s how the antidote is developed.”

Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two men accused of assassinating Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006, said Britain’s response to events was suspiciously quick. Evidence, he said, that London was operating according to its own script.

Any chemist or physicist will tell you that as a minimum you need some kind of serious expertise on a serious expert level to determine whether or not a country is responsible,” he told the Interfax news agency.

“When such statements are made in the course of a few days, this speaks only of irresponsibility and the fact that they haven’t set out to discover the truth.”

Novichok agents may feasibly be created in pesticide and agricultural fertilizer manufacturing plants, as they have an organophosphate core, as do other nerve agents. So far the government have offered no firm evidence of Russia’s involvement. 

May has said the decision to blame Russia is based on “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations”.Yet already the government are talking about ‘robust responses’, which is very worrying. 

The Washington Post reports: “Former special services agent Mikhail Lyubimov was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers, as suggesting Skripal wouldn’t have been worth the trouble of a hit.

Skripal was sent to the West in a swap; that means he’s absolutely uninteresting to us. He’s a small-fry,’ Lyubimov said.”

Skripal was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI as part of a swap. He was later flown to the UK.

On Sunday, Dimtry Kiselev, one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, spoke during his Sunday news programme on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, in Moscow. Kiselev suggested a possible connection between the poisonings in Salisbury, which British officials said resulted from exposure to an unspecified nerve agent, and international  upcoming World Cup football tournament. 

Kiselev suggested the poisoning could be a “special operation” aimed at justifying a boycott of the tournament. I don’t think that is likely, however.

Skripal wasn’t much use to Britain as an exposed ex-spy, but “as someone who’s been poisoned, who is ill, he’s very useful,” Kiselev said. 

The programme included an on-the-ground report from Britain. The reporter noted that Salisbury, the town where Skripal was lived and fell sick, is about a 20-minute drive from the Porton Down laboratories where Britain developed chemical and bacteriological agents.

“But in the British press and special services, there is no suspicion” [of any British involvement], said another reporter, Alexander Khabarov.

So Russia has been given an ultimatum. May goes on to say that if Russia does not give a “credible response”, the government will conclude that the attack involved “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”. 

May also said the UK must stand ready to take much more “extensive measures”, and these would be set out in the Commons on Wednesday should there be no adequate explanation from Russia.

The prime minister will then return to the Commons to outline retaliatory proposals, should there be no adequate explanation.

Here are the key passages from Theresa May’s statement today:

Mr Speaker, this morning I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available.

As is normal, the Council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation.

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.

This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4 March.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.

Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

This afternoon my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is – and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.

My Rt Hon Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

And he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

Mr Speaker, this action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression.

Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.

Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.

During his recent State of the Union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.

While the extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006.

And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvenenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation – and the stifling of due process and the rule of law …

Mr Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.

Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.

And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.

Mr Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk.

And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.

In his response to May’s statement,  Jeremy Corbyn condemned the Salisbury attack, and he included criticism of the Tories for taking money from Russian donors. .

The government could impose unilateral sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses. However, it is unlikely to get support from European partners for tougher EU-wide sanctions. Brexit makes those kinds of negotiations much more difficult, and some EU countries are already trying to soften their approach to Moscow.

The government could also make it more difficult for Russians generally to get visas to the UK. However, this is unlikely as such restrictions might also hit Russian dissidents whom the UK welcomes and wealthy businessmen whose laundered cash the UK tolerates to support London’s property market. Few analysts believe targeting rich Russians with tougher asset-stripping orders would make much difference. They would simply take their money elsewhere. 

The government could pass a British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky act, which punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with asset freezes and travel bans. It is named after a Russian lawyer who died in custody after revealing alleged fraud by state officials. Opposition MPs have been pushing for a Magnitsky amendment to be added to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill now going through Parliament. 

Other options include the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK, as happened after the poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service operative Litvinenko in 2006. 

There has also been discussion of taking Russian broadcasters such as RT (formerly Russia Today) off the air , and broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after May speaks on Wednesday.  

The UK has already internationalised the matter by asking Russia to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of the Novichok nerve agent programme to an international agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

By framing the poisoning as a possible “unlawful use of force” by Russia against the UK,  May has also prompted questions as to whether this could be a matter for NATO, the military alliance of 29 countries. The alliance’s policy of collective defence – under Article 5 – states that an attack on any one ally is seen as an attack on all. It was invoked for the first and only time by the United States after the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Lord Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, told the BBC that such an “unlawful act” warranted the involvement of NATO.

Any action “will be much more effective if there can be a broader, Nato-EU solidarity behind us”, he said. So far, Downing Street has played down suggestions that this is an Article 5 matter, though.

However, the magnitude of the response that may be announced on Wednesday will depend on the scale of international co-operation that the government can secure, 

The risk with any of the options  considered is the scale of any Russian retaliation, of course.

Before the basic facts of the case have been established, both sides have indulged in an early confrontational exchange. Let’s hope and pray that a diplomatic solution can be reached, rather than any further potentially catastrophic escalation.



From the age of nuclear ‘deterrence’ to an era of first-strike posturing – a creeping escalation



I don’t make any money from my work. I’m a disabled person with lupus, and I’m stuggling to get by. But you can help by making a donation and enable me to continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others going through disability benefit assessment processes and appeals. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.


The biggest threat to our national security and safety is authoritarian Conservative posturing and their arms deals with despotic states

The recent terrorist attack resulting in the cold-blooded murder of innocent men, women and children has been turned into an inappropriate strategy for the Conservatives to extend partisan politics. Every one of the lives lost is a horrible tragedy. The consequences of the loss for each family will be difficult and painful to bear as it is.

Now really isn’t the time for political posturing and opportunistic electioneering. 

Illustration: Martin Rowson

Theresa May, who has already pledged that the Conservatives will regulate and control the internet, was much more aggressive in her tone than previously. The London Bridge attack had its roots in Islamic extremism, she said: “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services, provide.”

I don’t recall the IRA depending on the internet. Or mobile phones for that matter. There were no “safe space” online social networks to “radicalise” would-be IRA members, but those terror attacks happened, nonetheless. They ended when we negotiated lasting peace in 1998 through the Good Friday Agreement.

It’s been said many times that terrorists hate our democracy and want to destroy it. However, surely a police state is not the answer. The answer to illiberalism isn’t more illiberalism.

A governing system is illiberal when, despite the fact that elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of a lack of civil liberties.  Theresa May is the most illiberal prime minister in living memory.

A government that polices the internet as a response to terror attacks doesn’t bode well for democracy, either, though I do like a “strong and stable” internet connection as much as the next person. 

She continued: “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism planning.”

This government are adept at blaming others for their own failure to meet their basic responsibilities towards citizens. What we see time and again is aggressive authoritarian posturing and diversion strategies in the place of genuine and rational problem solving. 

How about ensuring we have a government that puts our safety first; one that that is not secretly helping countries that support jihadi groups. Theresa May has mentioned working with “allied democratic governments”. But it’s really the undemocratic ones – Saudi Arabia, for example – that would be a good place to start.

The problem of our government’s significant contribution to global instability

May and terrorism

Theresa May, welcomed in Riyadh by Saudi Arabian crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef.

The Conservatives have a long history of selling arms and weapon components to unstable nations and repressive regimes. Information about the Thatcher government’s duplicitous record in selling arms to Iraq emerged in the mammoth Scott inquiry of 1996. The judge found that although Conservative ministers had restricted major “sharp” arms sales to President Saddam Hussein, they had also connived at ways round Britain’s supposed neutrality. As the 1992-93 Scott Inquiry into arms-to-Iraq uncovered, until the time Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Baghdad had been a profitable recipient of UK arms for over a decade.

From 1980 to 1990 under Thatcher’s Cabinet, the United Kingdom provided £3.5 billion in trade credits to Iraq. This support continued on either side of Saddam’s ordering the poison gassing of Iranian conscript troops in 1983-84, and of his own people in Halabja, Kurdistan, in 1988, killing 5,000 innocent civilians. Thatcher sold the components of chemical weapons to Hussein.

Trade export credits to Iraq rose from £175 million in 1987 (before Halabja) to £340 million after Halabja, according to a press release from the then Department for Trade and Industry. Five months after the Halabja massacre, Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe, noted in a report to Thatcher that with the August 1988 Iran-Iraq peace deal agreed, “opportunities for sales of defense equipment to Iran and Iraq will be considerable.” 

The UK government is still secretly selling arms to Saudi Arabia and other countries under an opaque type of export licence. The military and defence industry is a major player in the UK economy, worth around £7.7bn a year. 

But many of the countries buying British arms are run by governments with dubious human rights records, even though the destinations of such exports are supposed to meet human rights standards.  

There are also serious questions to be asked about the role of Saudi Arabia in fuelling terrorism and extremism in the region. There is no question that domestic solutions to terrorism are needed, but these are not aided in any way by arming human rights abusing regimes like Saudi Arabia. UK arms export law is very clear. It says that licences for military equipment should not be granted if there is a “clear risk” that it “might” be used in serious violation of international humanitarian law. By any reasonable interpretation these criteria should surely prohibit all arms sales to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia has been widely condemned for its role in the Yemeni conflict, where its airstrikes have been responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths.

Thousands have died in the Yemen campaign, with the Saudis accused of targeting civilians. Four-fifths of the population is in need of aid, and famine is gripping the country. But despite this, and protests from human rights groups and the United Nations, the UK has continued to arm the Saudi regime, licensing about £3.3bn of weapons to the kingdom since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015.

More than £3bn of British-made weaponry was licensed for export last year to 21 of the Foreign Office’s 30 “human rights priority countries” – those identified by the government as being where “the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations take place”, or “where we judge that the UK can make a real difference”. Listed countries that last year bought British arms and military equipment include: 

Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of perpetrating war crimes in Yemen.

Bahrain, which used troops to quell protests following the Arab spring.

Burundi, which is being investigated by the UN for human rights violations.

■ The Maldives, which in 2015 jailed its former president, Mohamed Nasheed, for 13 years following what critics said was a politically motivated show trial.

Sources: The Guardian.

In 2014 the UK licensed just £170m of arms to 18 of the 27 countries then on the “priority countries” list. The massive increase in sales was largely attributable to sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. The largest export licence granted was for £1.7bn of fighter jets, agreed in May 2015. In July 2015 the UK approved the export of £990m of air-to-air missiles. In September, it approved the sale of £62m of bombs to the country. All three sales took place after the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015, prompting concerns that civilian buildings have been targeted, and widespread human rights violations taking place.

In 2015 the UK also approved licences of £84m of military equipment to Egypt, despite concerns about the country’s direction since the July 2013 coup that ousted its elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Figures show that in July 2015, a month after the UK refused export licences for the sale to Egypt of components for machine guns and training small arms ammunition, it approved the sale of sniper rifles, ammunition, pistols, body armour and assault rifles.

This is a clear case of the government saying one thing and doing another, and exposes the blatant doublespeak and hypocrisy that lies at the heart of UK foreign policy,” said Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which compiled the export sales figures. 

“These arms sales are going to countries that even the Foreign Office accepts are run by some of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world,” he said. “The humanitarian situation in many of these countries is only getting worse, and yet the arms sales are increasing. They aren’t just providing military support for human rights abusers; they are sending a strong political support too.”

Last year, Peter Oborne wrote: “Jeremy Corbyn cannot be faulted for calling a debate on Yemen. For the past 18 months, Britain has been complicit with mass murder as our Saudi allies have bombarded Yemen from the air, slaughtering thousands of innocent people as well as helping fuel a humanitarian calamity.

Corbyn clearly felt that it was his duty as leader of a responsible and moral opposition to challenge this policy.”

Corbyn has said today: “The “difficult conversations” suggested by the Prime Minister in her Downing Street speech this morning should start with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have funded and fuelled extremist ideology”.

“Our priority must be public safety and I will take whatever action is necessary and effective to protect the security of our people and our country,” Corbyn told his audience. 

“That includes full authority for the police to use whatever force is necessary to protect and save life as they did last night, as they did in Westminster in March.

“You cannot protect the public on the cheap. The police and security services must get the resources they need, not 20,000 police cuts.

“Theresa May was warned by the Police Federation but she accused them of ‘crying wolf’.”

“It is no good Theresa May suppressing a report into the foreign funding of extremist groups. We have to get serious about cutting off the funding to these terror networks, including Isis, here and in the Middle East.”

The inquiry that Corbyn refers to – an investigation into the foreign funding of extremist Islamist groups – may never be published, the Home Office has admitted. It is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia, which the UK recently approved £3.5bn worth of arms export licences to. 

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, has written a letter to the Prime Minister pressing her on when the report will be published and what steps she proposes to take to address “one of the root causes of violent extremism in the UK”.

He goes on to say: “You will agree with me that the protection of our country, of the British people, is the most important job of any government. Certainly, more important than potential trade deals with questionable regimes, which appear to be the only explanation for your reticence.

“When will this report be finished and published? And what steps do you propose to take to address one of the root causes of violent extremism in the UK?”

Brake and others have accused May of adopting a “short-sighted approach” to the funding of violent Islamist groups in the UK and urged that those who fund them should be called out publicly. 

Despite claimed actions by the Saudi government to counter ISIS, the country’s religious establishment follows the same ideology as the terrorist group: wahhabism. Hillary Clinton’s US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, stated: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

This comes after Home Secretary Amber Rudd suggested during a leadership debate, that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia are “good for industry.” 

Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right to identify British foreign policy as a proximate cause of – not a justification for – terrorist threats (Guardian report, 26 May). Six weeks ago, the PM led a trade mission to Saudi Arabia. Under fire from Labour, she denied the UK had been selling its principles for the sake of trade deals for the post-Brexit era. Saudi Arabia is primarily important for selling us oil, and spending billions on buying arms. 

Yet many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.

Corbyn has pointed out: “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions. But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people that fights rather than fuels terrorism.”

The UK, the second-largest arms exporter in the world, approved licences for the sale of £7.7bn of arms last year, but its licensing export regime is under acute scrutiny amid fears British weaponry is being routinely used in Yemen. Last week a British-made cluster bomb, dating from the 1980s, was found to have been dropped on a village in Yemen, even though the use and supply of such weapons is banned under international law.

The Government has recently approved £3.5bn worth of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia and a stream of British ministers have visited the kingdom to solicit trade, despite its ongoing involvement in the bombing campaign in Yemen.

On 5 October 2014, retired General Jonathan Shaw told the Daily Telegraph that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were “primarily responsible for the rise of the extremist Islam that inspires Isil terrorists,” emphasising “This is a timebomb funded by Saudi and Qatari money and that must stop.” 

Foreign policy clearly plays some role in the recent horrific terror events in the UK. Consider the testimony of Jomana Abedi, the sister of the Manchester murderer, who said of her brother: “He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge,” before adding, rather chillingly: “Whether he got that is between him and God.”

There is also the posthumous video released by Mohammad Sidique Khan, key organiser of the 7/7 bombers, in which he cast himself as an “avenger” for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And recall too the warnings of Britain’s security services, who feared the Iraq war would lead to increased radicalisation.

British foreign policy, including the involvement of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has exacerbated the risk of terrorist attacks by destabilising the Middle East and fuelling suspicion of the west.

In a speech at the Chatham House thinktank in May, Corbyn suggested a Labour government would seek to rely on a “triple commitment” to defence, development and diplomacy, to protect Britain’s interests, rather than a “bomb first, talk later” mentality. He has definitely stuck to is guns, as it were. He presents a genuinely in-depth, rational problem solving approach to protecting UK citizens.

Following the terror attack on Manchester, the Conservatives have seized on the electioneering opportunity to try and paint Labour as somehow “soft on terrorism.” 

But in addition to using diplomacy to address the problem of terrorism and its root causes, Labour pledge to put 20,000 more police officers on the streets. Corbyn said: Labour will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us. Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap.”

It is Corbyn who is prepared to look at the bigger and deeper picture regarding the causes of terrorism in the UK. The Conservatives prefer to suppress information regarding government contributions to those causes. The suppressed report is expected to reveal links between Saudi Arabia and extremist groups in the UK.  It was commissioned by the last coalition government in 2015 and due to be published last year but has never been emerged. Critics of the government believe it has been suppressed due to the UK government’s ongoing trade relationships with the country. 

Controlling the internet is a logical extension of May’s authoritarian Snooper’s Charter, which won’t stop terror attacks on the UK. Instead it will simply introduce huge restrictions on what people can post, share and publish online.

Government figures compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) show the UK has licenced over £4.1 billion of arms to the Middle East since the last election in May 2015, and that two thirds of UK arms exports go to the Middle East.

The government’s arms deals include £15million in sales over the past five years to Libya, large parts of which are already controlled by the ISIS. 

Saudi is the hotbed of Islamist terror groups across the world. Yet on the televised leader’s debate, Amber Rudd defended Theresa May’s murderous Saudi allies who export an extremism which threatens our national security. She said that it was “good for industry”, a response that has appalled every other political party leader.

Arming the oil rich Islamist regimes may well be a lucrative political business but it really doesn’t matter to the Conservatives how many innocent civilians the Saudis massacre in Yemen using British weapons. Or the potential implications for innocent civilians in the UK.

The conditions created by the West’s war-sanctions-war policy in Iraq since 1991, left the country utterly broken, and a fertile breeding ground for extremism. In 2014, John Pilger wrote: “like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state terror dispensed by a venal imperial elite undeterred by the consequences of actions taken at great remove in distance and culture.”

The Conservatives have remained supremely unconcerned that the ISIS terrorists being bombed in Syria and Iraq by UK forces are filled with Saudi fighters and funded by Saudi cash. After all, selling weapons to both sides of a conflict has got to be more profitable than just selling weapons to one.

Theresa May has indicated that she in favour of the UK joining the US military action against Bashar al-Assad if she wins next month’s election. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has previously indicated that the British Government could bypass the Commons and join Donald Trump’s military campaign in war-ravaged Syria if asked by the US administration. Speaking last month, Johnson said it would be “very difficult to say no” if the US asked the UK to join its efforts against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime in response to another chemical attack. He said “How exactly we were able to implement that would be for the Government, the Prime Minister.” 

Whitehall has a deep, long-standing special relationship with the extremist Saudis: it is arming them, backing them, apologising for them, and supporting their regional policies. At the same time, the Saudis have been helping to create the monster that now threatens the British public. So, too, have the policies of the British government also contributed.

May’s reluctance to disapprove of Trump’s increasingly rash decisions, such as his departure from the Paris Agreement, indicates quite clearly that she is not at all the “strong and stable” leader that she claims to be.

A group of British volunteers fighting Isis in Syria have called on the UK to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its International Freedom Battalion backed the Labour leader’s controversial comments on foreign policy following the Manchester attack.

In a statement sent to the Independent (indy100) they said:

“Only Jeremy Corbyn knows the way to stop Isis – through a foreign policy that cuts off their funding and supplies at the source.

Only he has been outspoken in his condemnation of the oppression of Kurds in the Middle East at this crucial time, with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces about to defeat Isis in their capital of Raqqa.

The longer Theresa May is Prime Minister, the less safe everybody is, both here in Syria and back home in the UK.

They accused May of allowing jihadis, including the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, to travel between the UK and Libya during the country’s civil war, as well as selling arms to countries that support Islamist rebels in Syria.

“Along with her toffee-nosed millionaire colleagues in the Conservative Party, she has brought nothing but instability to this region,” their statement read.

Nuclear terrorism is also now a growing threat. In March 2016, it was reported that a senior Belgian nuclear official was being monitored by ISIS suspects linked to the November 2015 Paris attacks leading Belgium authorities to suspect that ISIS was planning on abducting the official to obtain nuclear materials for a “dirty bomb”.

In April 2016, EU and NATO security chiefs warned that ISIS are plotting to carry out nuclear attacks on the UK and Europe. It is also feared that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) have obtained a stockpile of former Iraqi short range missiles such as surface to air rockets. There is a “justified concern” that Islamist fanatics in Syria and Iraq are trying to obtain the means of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and radiological weapons.

The risk of nuclear attack is exacerbated by aggressive first strike posturing


In April, the United Nations (UN) published a major report which highlights the massive risk of both an accidental and the deliberate use of the world’s most catastrophic weapons. The “poor relations” between nuclear powers has contributed to an atmosphere that “lends itself to the onset of crisis,”  the report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research says.

The report said: “The rise in cyber warfare and hacking has left the technical vulnerabilities of deadly nuclear weapons systems exposed to risk from states and terrorist groups.” 

It went on: “Nuclear deterrence works – up until the time it will prove not to work. The risk is inherent and, when luck runs out, the results will be catastrophic.”

“The more arms produced, particularly in countries with unstable societies, the more potential exists for terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.”

The report added that denuclearisation would require “visionary leadership”, but added this was “sadly rare” as many powerful states have “increasingly turn inward”. Nationalism has certainly grown on a global scale over recent years.

The report goes on to say that new technology and spending on nuclear weapons had “enhanced” the risk of a detonation. However, it acknowledged the secrecy surrounding the programmes made it difficult to accurately assess their true scope. 

Increased reliance on technology has also introduced new problems. In the past, accidental nuclear detonations have been averted by human decisions. Replacing military officers with computers could therefore rule out a potential safety check on the weapons, and open the possibility of hacking a nuclear weapon. 

The report also referenced the January 2017 decision of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science to move the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight because of fears of a nuclear event – the most risky position it has been at since 1953.

The politics of megalomania

In April 2017 Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that the UK would use nuclear weapons in a “pre-emptive initial strike” in “the most extreme circumstances.” He doesn’t specify precisely what those circumstances may be. Nor does he say which country may be the UK’s likeliest target.

In an extraordinary act of aggressive posturing, he added that a first strike may be launched even if Britain itself was not under threat of nuclear attack. He said that national security need not be under threat to warrant a “pre-emptive” nuclear launch. 

Asked in what circumstances the Conservatives would launch a first strike, Fallon replied: “They are better not specified or described, which would only give comfort to our enemies and make the deterrent less credible.”

He clearly doesn’t understand the principle of “deterrence”, then. That is pretty scary. You would hope that a government responsible for the safety of citizens would only ever launch a nuclear attack as a very last resort, once all other options, such as diplomacy and negotiation, had been completely exhausted. How discomforting that Fallon sees the UK public as disposable – collateral damage. Why on earth would anyone trust a defence secretary who makes such an irrational comment – “even if Britain itself was not under threat of nuclear attack. He said that national security “need not be under threat to warrant a “pre-emptive” nuclear launch”. It sounds very much like the Conservatives have a specific target in mind, to me. I don’t think the changed nuclear posture – and without an open review – has come about incidentally or on a whim.

That statement doesn’t bode well for democratic accountability, nor is it particularly reassuring that the Conservatives plan to prioritise the safety and protection citizens’ lives and the planet. That is surely the key strategic value of having a nuclear deterrent – that all parties in a potential conflict would be reluctant to launch a first strike because of the catastrophic consequences of a probable retaliation.

Fallon continued: “The whole point about the deterrent is that you have got to leave uncertainty in the mind of anyone who might be thinking of using weapons against this country.”

No you don’t. The point of deterrence is that nuclear weapons deter a first strike because of an assumed retaliatory second strike.

Fallon also insisted that critics of Trident – including senior military figures who have ridiculed the idea that it is an effective deterrent – were “absolutely wrong”.

A report – British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament – by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) and the Nuclear Education Trust – is a ground-breaking study into military thinking on nuclear weapons. And it is rather startling to find that the military establishment is far from unanimous on the issue of Trident replacement. Some participants in the study, commenting on the exorbitant cost of Trident replacement, stated that “no circumstances justify the large amounts of money required by [Trident] and this money would be better spent elsewhere.”  The problem is that a majority of the wider public generally support having of a nuclear deterrent.  

Many participants in the NIS survey were also unclear about many aspects of the UK’s nuclear weapons, including their costs, purpose and credibility. Many in the military think Trident is a “political” tool and little more and many would rather see the money spent on equipment which could actually be used: especially at a time when the forces have been faced with spending cuts. 

The Labour party manifesto states a clear commitment to renewing Trident under a Labour government. However, controversy in the media – directed by misleading comments from the Conservatives – has unbelievably problematised Corbyn’s perfectly reasonable caution in committing to launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack.

Personally I would much rather the prime minister put effort into finding rational diplomatic solutions to protect the UK citizenry, rather than dancing in an unholy, manic glee at the very prospect of our assured nuclear annihilation.  

The debate, being cheer-led from the right, has descended into a macabre and somewhat irrational political point-scoring exercise, using a strategy of tension in an attempt at portraying the opposition leader as “weak”. This is a tactic that the Conservatives use at every single election, regardless of who is the leader of the opposition. Usually, though, they don’t show a grotesque display of eagerness to bring about Armageddon to demonstrate a “strong and stable” leadership. 

Deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction: what that actually means

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a military doctrine and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. MAD is based on the strategy of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using catastrophic weapons against an enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium (games theory), in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.

The deterrence strategy further rests on assumption that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side would launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with surviving forces (a second strike), resulting in unacceptably catastrophic losses for both parties. The strategic MAD payoff is therefore an ongoing expectation of a tense global stability and peace. 

The major flaw in a first strike approach is that it encourages the opponent to perform a massive counterforce first strike. If both sides of a conflict adopt the same stance of massive response, it may result in unlimited and globally devastating escalation (a “nuclear spasm”), each believing that the other will back down after the first round of retaliation. This said, both problems are not unique to massive retaliation, but to nuclear deterrence as a whole. 

It is for these reasons that many countries have adopted a minimum credible deterrent/second strike policy. Previously we had a policy of using nuclear weapons only as a defence. 

Many of those arguing both for and against no-first-use misunderstand it: The policy reflects the power to set the rules of war, rather than some wayward pacifist ideal to end all war. Countries that issue no-first-use pledges boast strong conventional militaries. These states want to encourage a model of war where their army meets the enemy on a conventional battlefield with clearly defined rules – the kind of war, in other words, that they usually win. Nuclear weapons upend this model, because they help weaker actors, the North Koreas and Pakistans of the world, produce extraordinary destruction, level the playing field, and cast victory into doubt.

Therefore, a no-first-use pledge could potentially reinforce a powerful state’s strategic advantage by discouraging other countries from developing nuclear arsenals, and by dissuading nuclear-armed countries from pushing the button. This would happen with the assurance that a state would not fire first – thereby keeping war safely bound and safely winnable, on the powerful state’s terms.

In an article published in the Atlantic last year, titled Refusing to Nuke First. Why rejecting nuclear preemption reflects strength, not weakness, Dominic Tierney says:

“Countries that contemplate or introduce a no-first-use policy are almost always strong states that enjoy a conventional-weapons edge. Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has repeatedly declared that it “undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” It’s no coincidence that China is the most powerful East Asian country, and would hold the advantage in any conventional war with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, or Taiwan (assuming, of course, that the United States stayed out). The spread of nuclear weapons in East Asia would diminish China’s strategic advantage; therefore, Beijing seeks to prevent this outcome with a no-first-use policy.

India announced in 1999 that it “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” In 2003, India qualified its no-first-use pledge by stating, “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” Again, it’s no coincidence that India is very likely to prevail over Pakistan in a future conventional war. India has a history of winning previous contests, and currently spends about $50 billion per year on defense compared to Pakistan’s $9.5 billion. New Delhi can safely issue a no-first-use pledge in the hope of keeping the strategic terrain favorable.

In  2016, General James E. Cartwright, former head of the US Strategic Command, and Bruce G. Blair, former Minuteman launch officer, co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times in favor of a U.S. no-first-use policy. They showed, explicitly, how power undergirds the proposed doctrine. “Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.”

If a country is willing to use nuclear weapons, it’s also willing to break a promise.

By contrast, weak states don’t even think about a no-first-use policy. Indeed, threatening to push the button early in a conflict is the basis of their deterrent plan. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had conventional superiority in Europe, the United States and its NATO allies intended to escalate to nuclear war if the Red Army launched an invasion. Similarly, today, Pakistan explicitly threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is ever attacked – even through a conventional invasion.

Viewed through a strategic – and perhaps more cynical – lens, the no-first-use doctrine also has a huge credibility problem. For the US pledge to truly matter, a president who otherwise favors a nuclear first strike would have to decide not to press the button because of this policy. But in an extreme national crisis – one involving, say, North Korean nuclear missiles – a president is unlikely to feel bound by America’s former assurance. After all, if a country is willing to use nuclear weapons, it’s also willing to break a promise.

Champions and critics of no-first-use often cast it as a principled policy and a revolutionary step, for good or for ill. But the idealistic symbolism of no-first-use betrays an underlying reality. Disavowing a first strike is a luxury afforded to the strong, and they play this card in the hope of strategic benefit. If Obama made a dramatic announcement of no-first-use, it would probably have less impact than people think because other countries wouldn’t follow suit, especially if they’re weak. And, in any case, the promise may be meaningless because no one can predict a president’s calculus when staring down a nuclear holocaust.

No-first-use is the policy of Goliath, not Gandhi.”

Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry said: “During my period as Secretary of Defense, I never confronted a situation, or could even imagine a situation, in which I would recommend that the President make a first strike with nuclear weapons  – understanding that such an action, whatever the provocation, would likely bring about the end of civilization.”

Perry’s life’s work, most of it highly classified, was nuclear weapons. He played a supporting role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which he went back to his Washington hotel room each night, fearing he had only hours left to live. He later founded his own successful defense firm, helped revolutionize the US way of high-tech war, and honed his diplomatic skills seeking common ground on security issues with the Soviets and Chinese. 

Nuclear bombs are an area of expertise for Perry, who had assumed they would be largely obsolete by now, seven decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, once again they have become a contemporary nightmare, and an emphatically ascendant one. A Russian president has recently make bellicose boasts about his arsenal. An American president free-associates on Twitter about starting a new nuclear arms race. Decades of cooperation between the two nations on arms control is nearly at a standstill. And, unlike the original Cold War, this time there is a world of busy fanatics excited by the prospect of a planet with more bombs – people who have already demonstrated the desire to slaughter many thousands of people in an instant. 

Perry is now a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He serves as director of the Preventive Defense Project. He is an expert in US foreign policy, national security and arms control. In 2013 he founded the William J Perry Project (, a non-profit effort to educate the public on the current dangers of nuclear weapons.

Disarmament has fallen far from the top of the policy priority list. The largest upcoming generation, the millennials, were raised in a time when the problem felt largely solved, and it’s easy for them to imagine it’s still quietly fading into history.  

Since the end of the Cold War, we no longer think about the threat of a nuclear holocaust every day. It’s not embedded in our public psyche. During the Cold War the United States relied on deterrence rather than prevention as the central principle of its security strategy. However, Trump’s recent posturing indicates a far more aggressive stance, implying a shift from a defensive to a rather more offensive approach, making him an extremely unpredictable custodian of the substantial US nuclear arsenal.

The problem is that the threat of a nuclear event and escalation is no longer retreating. Perry said in an interview in his Stanford office: “Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

A report published today, during the UK’s General Election period, seeks to reframe the nuclear debate within the UK. The report comes from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the United Nations Association (UNA-UK).

Up until now, the debate has been dominated by the decision about whether to invest in a renewal of the Trident system, linked to political judgements about the responsibilities of governments to maintain strong defence capabilities. As a result, wider questions about how best to tackle global nuclear dangers have been neglected.

This matters, particularly as the crisis with North Korea unfolds, but also as relations with Russia deteriorate and states frustrated with a lack of progress on disarmament begin negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons without any nuclear armed states in the room. Commitment to the bargain at the heart of the nuclear non‑proliferation regime, always a little shaky as interpretations of its priorities have been contested, could easily fray, with drastic risks to global security.

This issue sits within broader questions about the UK’s role in the world. As we move through a period of growing instability, the need for effective international mechanisms to promote security is greater than at any other time since the UN was founded. Their success depends on states’ willingness to work together. The increasingly fractious geopolitical environment, however, is impeding progress and putting further pressure on our post-war international system, already overstretched by the convergence of multiple crises.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear weapon state and one of the largest aid donors, the UK is an important player on the world stage. The international system has delivered prosperity and security for the UK as a whole. Its breakdown could have serious – and, in the context of nuclear weapons, existential – consequences for the country. Unfortunately, the UK has not been immune to the growing reluctance by states to invest in the continuing health of this system. 

Over the past decade, voices calling for a narrower outlook have grown louder in this country, as in many the world over. But the line between national and global interests is disappearing. British foreign policy must embrace this reality and prioritise strengthening collective efforts to create a more peaceful world.

The need for nuclear disarmament through multilateral diplomacy is greater now than it has been at any stage since the end of the Cold War. Trust and confidence in the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime is fraying, tensions are high, goals are misaligned, and dialogue is irregular. 

In Meaningful MultilateralismBASIC and UNA–UK offer 30 multilateral disarmament proposals for the incoming UK Government after the General Election on June 8, themed according to three types of leadership the UK has previously shown in disarmament:

Diplomatic leadership

• Technical leadership

• Leadership by example

The Conservatives don’t fulfil any of these criteria because of their strong authoritarian tendencies, and they certainly haven’t demonstrated a preference for diplomacy or leadership by example in particular.

Whatever one’s position on Trident, there are meaningful steps that can be taken in multilateral disarmament, and the next UK Government should actively take a leadership role.

The current growing global instability is a turn of events that has William Perry, former US defense Secretary, obsessed with one question: Why isn’t everyone as terrified as he is?

Why indeed.

There is a crisis in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with its vision unraveling due to different views on disarmament. If the deterrence principle were to break down, the potential global humanitarian impact would be truly apocalyptic. The strategic offence doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction means just that. In such an exchange, there can’t possibly be a winner. It wouldn’t be a simple act of genocide. A nuclear exchange may well culminate in omnicide – a small word that means the totalising enormity of the end of everything for everyone. Even a restrained tactical exchange would most probably have catastrophic bioecological and wider global impacts, and a devastating breakdown of civilisation. 

Everyone agrees that the risk of nuclear war is bad; if all else were equal, we would rather not have this risk. But all else is not equal. The probability of nuclear war is not zero. Nuclear deterrence can fail. It is a fallacy to presume that just because no nuclear war has occurred since the post-World War II advent of nuclear deterrence, therefore it will never happen. The historical record contains several near-misses in which nuclear war was narrowly avoided due in no small part to luck.  

The argument that nuclear deterrence makes the world a safer place is not particularly persuasive.

First strike posturing is considerably less so.

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