There was speculation last night that the British High Commission in Wellington had taken the rare step of briefing journalists on the spy poisoning case because they could not be sure of Foreign Minister, Winston Peters’ response.
Retired military intelligence officer Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury city centre on Sunday 4 March. They remain in a critical but stable condition in hospital.
Mr Skripal was convicted by the Russian government of passing secrets to MI6 in 2004, but given refuge in the UK in 2010 as part of a “spy swap”.
The British invited selected journalists (POLITIK did not attend) to a briefing clearly intended to soften up New Zealand public opinion to join in any sanctions Britain might try and impose on Russia who it suspects of being behind the poisoning.
The fact that a senior diplomat conducted the briefing suggests that the British felt they needed to make a strong case in Wellington.
This is in contrast to how they handed the matter in Canberra where a British official joined what one participant described as a low key Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade briefing of journalists.
Then last night Peters issued a statement on the poisoning which studiously avoided alleging any direct Russian involvement (beyond being the source of the poison) at all.
He said the New Zealand Government would express its views at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council meeting taking place this week in The Hague.
(According to the OPCW website, New Zealand is not a member of the Council but both Russia and Britain are)
“We expect that any other OPCW member with information about this incident would support a full and thorough investigation so that the perpetrators are held to account,” he said.
But New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes Intelligence network and should expect to have available top-level British intelligence on the case.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has already said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack.
As a consequence, the Foreign Office has summoned Russia’s Ambassador to provide an explanation.
Mrs May has said that if there was no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday (this morning NZ time), the UK would conclude there had been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.
Peters does not go that far.
His statement said, “How this military-grade nerve agent was transported from Russia and released abroad is the key issue here, and warrants urgent international investigation.”
Asked whether he accepted May’s statement that Russia was “highly likely” to have been behind the attack and what standard of proof or evidence he might require before agreeing to impose sanctions, he sent a text to POLITIK saying: “Read my press release.”
POLITIK replied saying the press release seemed to suggest that he would need more than British conclusions to he satisfied Russia was the guilty party.
PETERS: “Why would they be having an investigation if they share your conclusions?”
POLITIK: “May said it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible and if she gets no “credible response” from the Russian Gvt by the end of Tuesday the UK would conclude there had been an unlawful use of force by Russia.”
PETERS: “Words mean everything.”
What stance he will take if May does conclude that Russia was responsible, remains to be seen but that wording suggests he may not be ready to single Russia out solely on the word of the British.
It is similar to the stance he and Jacinda Ardern have taken on the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 — that the official inquiry has yet to find Russia was responsible and therefore they are not ready to condemn Russia.
In contrast President Trump overnight said it sounded to him that the British believed Russia was behind the poisoning “and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
If the British impose sanctions against Russia and persuade a wide range of countries to join them, then that could pose a challenge for the Ardern Government.
It would be necessary to get Peters to support them, and there is enough evidence around to suggest he would be reluctant.
The whole case has eery echoes of the Rainbow Warrior bombing of 1985 when a foreign intelligence service entered New Zealand to commit a crime here.
Ironically the-then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unsympathetic to New Zealand
British Cabinet papers released in 2005 show that she refused to sanction official criticism of the French over the blowing up of the ship even after Paris had admitted being behind the bombing.
She sided with the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, who did not want to “rub salt in French wounds”.
Coming on top of his reservations about China’s Belt and Road, his sympathies for President Trump and his reluctance to condemn Russia over MH17 or interference in the US elections the questions is increasingly becoming how much these statements reflect Government policy and how much they reflect the mvberick whims of the foreign minister.