The Stena Impero, what next?

The Stena Impero, what next?

The Stena Imperio, what next?

With the UK flagged tanker Stena Impero being seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz, reportedly in Omani Territorial waters according to the UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt, what can be done next?

Whatever the next step is, it will by default be seen by the Iranians as escalatory. We are entering a very dangerous phase that would tax the most experienced and hardened of Prime Ministers never mind a new one starting next week. 

The Foreign Office has summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London, in the first step of what will be a fraught period of diplomacy where every word counts.  Penny Mordaunt has already declared it as a ‘Hostile Act,’ a significant choice of words in the diplomatic world as it is one associated with the easing of a military’s rules of engagement and a precursor to greater military deployments.

Once severe displeasure has been lodged with the Iranian charge d’affaires it is likely that Teresa May and Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary will be on the phone to allied to ask them to pass their condemnation onto Iran’s representatives in their capitals. We should start to see statements of condemnation and concern from allies coming out.

The next formal step will likely be an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council early in the week, to pass a resolution ordering Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and to stop all aggressive behaviour in the region. If the phrase ‘hostile act’ gets into the UNSCR the next phrase to watch for is “by all means necessary” when it comes to enforcing the resolution. That is in effect a UN authorisation to go to war if necessary. Words are important!

Given Iran’s links to Syria and therefore Russian activity in Syria they would probably hope that Russia would veto any resolution worded too strongly.  However, given there is a Russian citizen amongst the crew and there is already pressure on Russia elsewhere, this is less likely.

Iran is angry at the UK’s seizure of an Iranian oil tankerthe Grace 1in Gibraltar’s waters, for operating against EU sanctions on Syria.  Iranian TV’s Channel Two, broadcast part of an interview with Mr Abbas Mousavi, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman who said the seizure was “a form of piracy” 

The issue is however much bigger and Iran’s beef with the UK goes far back in history with recent disputed over undelivered tanks, ordered during the Shar’s reign and partially paid for but not delivered due to the Iranian Revolution.  The initial payments were never refunded, and Iran has taken the UK Govt owned company who brokered the deal, to court.

Iran is concerned about current sanctions and sees the UK as a bedfellow of their arch enemy the US. President Trumps recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear treaty has enflamed tensions.  Those tensions are further enflamed by the continuing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen where British weapons and supplied military capabilities are being used against Iranian backed rebels.

The one conclusion form all of this is it is a mess and will be very difficult to unpick, it is likely the Stena Impero will be in Iranian waters for quite some time to come.  Any next step is likely to enflame tensions further and I suspect activity in Portsmouth will be increasing rapidly to prepare more ships for sea. Not a good time for RN personnel if they have annual leave booked.

Note: This blog is written by Philip Ingram MBE, a former British Military Intelligence Officer and now journalist who has served in the Gulf. If you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

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Novichok, what response would be appropriate for Russia?

Novichok, what response would be appropriate for Russia?

Novichock, what response would be appropriate for Russia?

by Philip Ingram MBE

With the Russians having failed to respond to Prime Minister Teresa Mays deadline to answer the simple question of “how this nerve agent came to be used” relating to the use of military grade Novichock in an attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care on Sunday 8th March in Salisbury.  How should she respond, what are her options, can she really punish Putin and Russia?

The first thing is to look at Putin’s probable motive for carrying out the attack. Recognise his motive and tailor responses to stop him doing what he set out to achieve.

I believe it is probable that President Putin wanted to do 3 things, the first and his most important is to send a very clear and horrific message to any of his political or business dissenters; he can get them anywhere and in the most horrific way.  The second was a message to the West and the wider world, he can operate with impunity where and when he wants, as he has done in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.  The final is personal, as an ex-KGB man the continued existence of a GRU ‘traitor’ will have gnawed away at the very fabric of his soul.

This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means to achieve this political attack required the assassination attempt.

Teresa May could unilaterally carry out a number of things that have almost become routine when a rogue nation goes too far, and these include:

  • Expel Russian diplomats and known intelligence agents, as was done after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB operative, in 2006 with polonium 210, a highly toxic radiological agent manufactured in a nuclear reactor.
  • Increase economic sanctions as was done after the downing of MH17, the Malaysian Airliner shot down over Ukraine in 2014, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for Rebels in Eastern Ukraine and freeze the financial assets of rich Russian oligarchs in the hope they will put pressure on Putin.
  • Other ‘protest’ actions such as restrict Russians from coming to the UK through a visa ban, boycott the World Cup, remove the broadcasting license for Russian state-backed broadcast channels such as RT, restrict access to UK based websites from Russia or any number of other punitive options.

Will they work? The easiest way to answer that question is to look back in time and see if similar actions have worked before.  The answer is a resounding no.  The reason why is that they are not getting at the reasons why Putin probably ordered this attack.

If Teresa May resorts to any one or more of these options only she is in effect saying to Putin the doors of the UK are open for him to do what he wants, and he will!

What else could she do? A coordinated International response would have a greater effect by sending a clearer message.  This doesn’t fall into NATO Article 5 territory of an attack on one nation meaning a military response from all.

The UK could ask NATO to invoke an Article 4 action where, “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” This is in effect what is being done but what is it likely to result in? A stiff letter? NATO members scolding the respective Russian Ambassadors in their countries? Will Putin be concerned?  In a word NO!

She could try to get GCHQ to carry out cyber-attacks on Russia and these could hurt, but would likely result in tit for tat escalation and the impact on British businesses could be catastrophic, especially during the Brexit negotiations.  The Russian control of the information war and use of social media as a weapon is significantly more advanced than anything the West has. It is extremely well explained in the book Alternative War by JJ Patrick and hours after Teresa May’s statement in Parliament threats erupted from the Russian Embassy on Twitter.

However, the UK intelligence services need to increase their Russian focused counterintelligence operations which became diluted after the end of the Cold War.  They need to remove the ability for Russian (and other) foreign intelligence operatives to use the UK as a ‘playground for spooks’.

Putin is acting as the bully in the playground, he is confident, arrogant and is developing if it hasn’t already developed, a god complex where he believes everything he does is right, and he is untouchable. That is his Achilles heel!

Going back to why he carried out the attack in Salisbury with an agent he knows would be tracked back to Moscow, it is a clear message to his political and business dissenters across the globe, “get on side or else.” In his 2102 Election, Putin got 63.6% of the vote, his personality is such that he wants to maintain that percentage or grow it in this weekend’s election.  If it goes down, he will feel his authority is being undermined and will likely be extremely angry.

So, what should be done to have an effect?  I believe Teresa May must do 2 things.  Identify a mechanism for hurting Russian State business. Something like a punitive transaction tax for all international currency transactions coming from Russia via the city of London. This would likely require emergency legislation and for it to be successful it would need cross-party unity.  If she attempted this and it failed, Putin would be emboldened.

It is too late to have a political effect on the Russian Presidential elections this weekend.  But we need to take a long-term view and if the UK identified some strong political opposition to Putin, offering a safe sanctuary in the UK with assistance to develop an effective campaign for the next elections would really worry Putin.  However, any individual associated a campaign like that would be a priority target for further Skripal type attacks.

These measures would hit at Putin’s probable motive for his use of Novichock on the streets of the UK and the next step is the international community following suit.  This is a real test of Prime Minister Teresa May’s domestic and international strength.

Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received.  The current version was updated at 1000 on 14th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE

Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?

Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?

Новичок – Novichok what do we know and what do we not know?

by Philip Ingram MBE

Prime Minister Teresa May confirming the agent used in the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, that put Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in intensive care and contaminated a number of other people as Novichok, has clarified some of what the country speculated and raised a whole new set of questions; not least of which is what is Novichock? What do we know about it and more importantly what do we not know about it?

I find myself in the slightly unenviable position of being referred to as an expert given my military and military intelligence background, the fact that on my basic and master’s degree courses I studied chemical defence and through my military career I was frequently involved in planning and practising warfare in contaminated chemical environments.  I have been fortunate to visit the amazing facilities at DSTL Porton Down on several occasions and get insights to what the scientists are doing to try and protect us not just from these deadly weapons but wider threats such as Disease X, recently referred to by the WHO as one of the next big threats. My insights are based on a little more knowledge than the average person and many years of study.

The one thing I can say with real certainty about Novichok, is that we don’t know a lot about it, so I would strongly advise commentators to be very careful about going into detailed descriptions.  As a former intelligence officer, I have never liked what we referred to as “Google INT” or “Wiki INT” from sources that could be providing false collateral to each other and are very difficult to verify.  Remember the Russians will have kept the real detail behind their Novichok programme highly classified and any information western governments have on it will be even more highly classified. Not surprisingly, journalism has the same caveats and we must remember to keep them.

Before I look at Novichok specifically the question I will answer is, “What are the military uses for persistent nerve agents?”  Persistent nerve agents are designed as area denial weapons, like the chemical equivalent of a minefield, but one that could be very rapidly deployed by artillery bombardment or aircraft. They are designed to act rapidly and cause maximum living casualties to overwhelm medical evacuation capabilities, medical facilities and logistic chains thereby taking a commanders’ focus off warfighting. The final effect and this is one being felt in Salisbury and across the country, is psychological. A colourless, odourless, deadly threat where you first know you are contaminated when you exhibit symptoms and become a casualty!

So why develop Novichock? NATO forces were very well versed in conducting warfare in chemical environments and their protective clothing and equipment meant that the Russians would be concerned that their chemical weapons use doctrine would be rendered less effective.  In addition, in the 1980’s the first real progress towards the Chemical Weapons Convention that would ban current weapons occurred with the 1978 Geneva Conference renamed in 1980 to the Conference on Disarmament. So, Russian scientists needed something that would defeat NATO protective equipment and defeat any rules imposed via a developing CWC.

So, what do we know or what can we assess?

Novichok is the collective name for a series of what are referred to as 4th generation nerve agents and as such are compounds that have the capacity to inactivate the enzyme acetylcholinesterase which is there to ‘turn off’ a trigger signal in a nerve caused by acetylcholine.  If you can’t turn it off the nerve keeps firing and the nervous system throughout the body, its control mechanism, is destroyed.

Novichok agents were invented, probably in the 1980’s by the Russians.  They were designed to be significantly more powerful than VX, to be undetectable using standard NATO chemical detection equipment, to defeat NATO chemical protective gear and to be safer to handle.  We saw military personnel deployed into Salisbury wearing additional protective suits over their standard military issue ones but what look like standard respirators.

Novichok agents are designed to be very persistent, this means that inhalation is not the primary route of exposure.  Contact with the skin, and with them being significantly more toxic than VX, in the minutest quantity, is the primary exposure route.

You can probably count the number of scientists from across the globe who have worked on Novichok agents and have a true knowledge of what they are and their effects on 2 hands; now that DSTL Porton Down have real samples to deal with, this number has just gone up. Additionally, the rationale behind why they were ‘invented’ is likely only an assessment.

Chemical weapons are as much a psychological weapon as one that causes injury as they are designed to destroy the will to fight through terror.  We are certainly seeing the psychological effect on some of the population of Salisbury, but more significantly its political effect.  Chemical weapons are often referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD), I believe they should more accurately be referred to as weapons of mass effect (WME) due to the panic they cause.

It is reported that Novichok agents may be able to come in binary form, two inert chemicals that when mixed form the agent, or provided in a fully active form. It could be a liquid or a powder.  The reality is it can probably be delivered in a variety of means and, given its rarity, the full extent of its delivery means is not known but merely assessed.

What do we not know (yet)?

We do not know the sequence and location of contamination of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.  We do not know what the contaminated place or object was that the Skripal’s first came in contact with the agent, we do not know how it got into the country or how it left a very carefully controlled Russian chemical warfare laboratory. We do not know the full extent of the contamination in various places around Salisbury and we do not know how it took so long for the Skripals to collapse if they were contaminated in their home.

Assessing all of the information available is interesting and complex.  If the theories I outlined in my blogs here: and here:  continue to hold accuracy I still believe on the balance of probabilities Russian President Putin ordered assassination attempt using Novichok. This reinforces one of the effects he was trying to achieve (stick a proverbial 2 fingers up at the West), as he would have known it would be traced back to him. It also sends a very powerful message to any political dissenters about his confidence in his power base.  This was a political attack rather than an assassination attempt; the means required the assassination attempt.

However, President Putin is a cunning ex-Intelligence commander.  He will have built in various scenarios to suggest he wasn’t directly involved, what I call plausibly deniable excuses.  Paraphrasing Donald Rumsfeld, there is stuff we know, there is stuff we know we don’t know but there is probably more that would fit into the category we don’t know what we don’t know.

Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received.  The current version was updated at 0900 on 13th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE