A police officer stands guard outside of the home of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

The sensational case of the poisoning of the ex-MI6 agent and former Russian military intelligence colonel, Sergei Skripal on March 4 in Salisbury, UK, is becoming curiouser and curiouser. Moscow is strongly refuting British allegations of Russian involvement in the poisoning of Skripal. An engrossing plot in big-power politics is also unfolding. There is stuff here for a Le Carre novel.

Are we witnessing a replay of the false flag Gulf of Tonkin attack of August 1964, the imaginary “incident” concocted by the US military to provide legal and political justification for deploying American forces in South Vietnam and for commencing open warfare against North Vietnam?

To recap, Britain alleged a military grade nerve agent of a type known as Novichok was used in Salisbury. It was originally developed in the former Soviet Union, and, therefore, Moscow’s hand – possibly, even President Vladimir Putin’s hand – was “highly likely”.

Moscow has maintained, on the other hand, that it had destroyed all its chemical weapons and said the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation verified this.

The British allegation quickly morphed into a large-scale expulsion of Russian diplomats (over 100 of them) by western capitals, under heavy pressure from Washington and London. The US alone expelled 60 Russian diplomats, while Britain expelled 23.

Britain is studiously ignoring the Russian requests for samples of the chemical agent used in the Salisbury attack and for giving consular access to the ex-spy’s daughter Yulia. Meanwhile, Britain instead approached the OPCW to investigate.

The OPCW has refused to confirm or deny the country of origin of the chemical agent used in the Salisbury attack.

There is egg on PM Theresa May’s face.

On April 18, Moscow disclosed that it has handed over to the OPCW alleged proof that the Novichok agent purportedly used in the Salisbury attack actually happens to be patented as a chemical weapon in 2015 in the US and produced in that country. (By the way, unlike Russia, the US is yet to destroy its chemical weapon stockpiles, as required under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.)

Now, not only the British government but Washington too has some explaining to do. Participating in the BBC’s Hard Talk program this week with Stephen Sacker, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov punched hard, saying “‘highly likely’ is a new invention of British diplomacy to describe why they punish people – because these people are ‘highly likely’ guilty. Like in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll when he described a trial… and the King said: ‘Let’s ask the jury’ and the Queen shouted: ‘No jury! Sentence first! Verdict afterwards!’ That’s the logic of ‘highly likely.’”

Britain is steadily edging away from the Skripal case, hoping, perhaps, that the matter will die down. But will Moscow let Britain off the hook? The Russians also seem to be holding back on some explosive information pointing toward alleged complicity by the US in this affair.

Simply put, could the Salisbury attack have been an Anglo-American joint covert operation undertaken with the ulterior motive to ratchet up tensions between the West and Russia? Indeed, it meshed well with the Russia-collusion campaign against Trump.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the former National Security Advisor HR McMaster might have hoodwinked President Donald Trump into approving the expulsion under the wrong notion that similar numbers of expulsions by European allies was in the pipeline. In the event though, the Europeans made only token expulsions.

Earlier, McMaster tried to stop Trump from congratulating Putin on his big victory in the Russian election on March 18 in a phone conversation (where they discussed a possible summit meeting in a near future).

If the Skripal incident was McMaster’s swan song, the indefatigable Russophobe probably hoped to kill two birds with one stone – push Russia’s relations with the West to a crisis point and second, scotch the prospects of an early US-Russia presidential summit.

How far all this is linked to Trump’s decision on March 22, finally, to sack McMaster as National Security Advisor is a moot question. By the standards of military people, McMaster has the reputation of being an “intellectual” but the man proved to be a Cold Warrior fit for a museum. The one-star general who was overlooked for promotion by the Pentagon was Trump’s default choice following the abrupt departure of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor.

Michael Wolff narrates a hilarious episode in his book Fire and Fury that during the job interview for National Security Advisor, McMaster tried to impress Trump when he showed up wearing a uniform with his silver star and launched into a wide-ranging lecture on global strategy. Afterward, Trump reportedly remarked, “That guy bores the shit out of me.”

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