An academic paper from the University of New South Wales in Australia describes four incidents where a virtual firehose of Russian propaganda was directed at the world’s chemical weapons watchdog: the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. But all four narratives omit key facts.

With the remit to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and investigate the use of chemical weapons worldwide, the critical function of the OPCW has been disrupted by propaganda attacks whenever its activities have conflicted with the geopolitical objectives of powerful state actors. These attacks have happened almost since the organisation was created in 1997.

Propaganda assaults on the OPCW have been made using techniques of deception, exaggeration, misdirection and — as we shall see — omission. Messaging has been co-ordinated across multiple mainstream and social media channels. News reports and government statements have been released simultaneously for a cumulative effect. Such rapid, broad-spectrum propaganda attacks have been called the “firehose of falsehood”.

According to Wikipedia, the firehose of falsehood is a “propaganda technique by which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively and continuously over multiple channels (such as news and social media) without regard for truth or consistency… the firehose of falsehood is a contemporary model for Russian propaganda under Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

The War on the OPCW’, a paper written by Australian military doctor and academic David Heslop with postgraduate student Joel Keep, apparently shows how the firehose of falsehood technique has been used by Russia against the OPCW in recent years. This paper appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Global Biosecurity, published by the University of New South Wales with University College London in June 2023.

Heslop and Keep do not explicitly refer to the firehose of falsehood as a propaganda technique in their paper. Instead they use the term maskirovka, which Wikipedia says is “a Russian military doctrine developed from the start of the 20th century [involving] a complexity of measures … including manipulation of ‘the facts’, situation, and perceptions to affect the media and opinion around the world”.

Heslop and Keep’s paper discusses four separate incidents involving the OPCW. In each case an account of the incident is presented according to official sources such as government statements, mainstream media articles, and OPCW reports. Nowhere in their paper do Heslop and Keep suggest any of these articles, reports or statements should be questioned or subjected to any kind of comparative or critical analysis.

A firehose of falsehood — or maskirovka — was apparently directed at all four of these incidents, representing Russian efforts to undermine the OPCW’s critical role: to prevent the use of chemical weapons worldwide. This torrent of propaganda is the metaphorical war Heslop and Keep suggest the OPCW has been subjected to. They seek to understand “how an institution so central to global counterproliferation came under attack”.

In response to ‘The War on the OPCW’, this article presents evidence that maskirovka — or the firehose of falsehood — is not a propaganda technique that is exclusive to or characteristic of Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is in fact a technique that has been liberally employed against the OPCW by supposedly liberal democracies such as France, the UK and the US (FUKUS), whenever such state actors desire to control certain narratives.

It is naïve to think propaganda is not used by governments against their own citizens. This has happened throughout history and is happening now. One example would be the way people in the UK were persuaded that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was necessary through statements suggesting that Saddam Hussein had secretly developed weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes. That claim was later shown to be propaganda.

Deception through omission is the charge laid against Helsop and Keep in what follows because — consciously or unconsciously — their paper does not consider the possibility that the sources they rely on are questionable or propaganda in and of themselves. All FUKUS narratives are assumed to be true; all narratives from states such as Russia or Syria are assumed to be false. There are no questions asked about their relative credibility.

Heslop and Keep’s assumptions and omissions mean that ‘The War on the OPCW’ represents a contribution to Western propaganda narratives surrounding the OPCW rather than an analysis of them. Their paper accuses certain parties of disseminating disinformation and falsehoods; it does so by doubling down on narratives from other parties that are presented without question, as if they could not possibly be wrong.

Accusing others of one’s own actions is a propaganda technique known as “accusation in a mirror”. The Wikipedia entry for accusation in a mirror describes “falsely attribut[ing] to one’s adversaries the intentions that one has for oneself”. Or, as Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Hitler’s Germany supposedly said: “accuse the other side of that [of] which you are guilty”. It is a projection of hypocrisy.

The firehose of falsehood works because checking sources is very time-consuming. It is like the Gish gallop: a “rhetorical technique in which a person in a debate attempts to overwhelm their opponent by providing an excessive number of arguments with no regard for [their] accuracy. Each point raised by the Gish galloper takes considerably more time to refute or fact-check than it did to state… known online as Brandolini’s law”.

One way to counter such a disinformation overload is to focus on a few weak points. The principle of falsifiability can be applied. This razor — defined by the philosopher of science and opponent of conspiracy theories Karl Popper — separates science from pseudoscience. For Popper, an alternative theory is never needed to debunk a scientific theory. Scientific theories are by definition falsifiable: that is, potentially wrong on their own terms.

Although it is not a scientific paper, this is the approach we shall take to ‘The War on the OPCW’. It makes too many claims for them all to be unpacked or fact checked. Instead, we will look at a few examples of how the omission of critical facts “falsifies” Heslop and Keep’s implicit assumptions. The argument is that their sources are part of a set of deeply propagandised narratives.

The first part of the paper deals with an incident on 10 April 2018, when four alleged spies from the Russian military intelligence agency called the GRU were apprehended in the Netherlands by the Dutch security services, apparently while attempting to hack into the wifi networks of the OPCW building in The Hague. Six months later, reports of this incident were co-ordinated across a number of channels on the same day, the 4th October 2018.

This co-ordination across multiple media platforms is overlooked by Heslop and Keep in their commentary, even though it represents evidence that Western governments were engaged in co-operative planning with respect to both the substance of statements made relating to this incident and the timing of their release. FUKUS was possibly seeking a “multiplier” propaganda effect through the near-simultaneous presentation of a defined narrative.

The second part of the paper addresses an event that occurred three days earlier on 7 April 2018 in Syria, involving at least 43 deaths. Dozens of corpses were found in a building at Douma, near Damascus. Men, women, and children seemed to have distressing images died in seconds, with foam around their mouths suggesting a nerve agent had killed them. A week later, on 14 April, FUKUS carried out a punitive missile strike on Syria.

Critical facts about the OPCW investigation into the Douma event are omitted here. A team of OPCW investigators travelled to Syria and visited the locations of the alleged attack a week after the FUKUS missile strikes, on 21 April. Their forensic investigations found no evidence nerve agent was used there, presenting a problem for FUKUS in view of what they had just done. The narrative was shifted to chlorine gas as the cause of death.

The third part of the paper turns to an alleged chemical weapons attack in the English city of Salisbury on 4 March 2018. The nerve agent “novichok” was apparently used there by Russian would-be assassins in an attempt to kill a retired Russian spy: Sergei Skripal. No one died until four months later, when a woman died after apparently coming into contact with the neurotoxin. We will see how the UK foreign secretary lied on German television about this poison.

The fourth part of the paper addresses the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition figure who apparently also survived deadly “novichok” poisoning. On a flight across Russia on the 20th of August 2020, Navalny was heard moaning from the toilets of the aircraft, allegedly because his underpants had been poisoned by different Russian would-be assassins at some point earlier. We will see further examples of omission in this final section.

1. Attempt to hack OPCW networks, The Hague, 10 April 2018

Heslop and Keep begin:

In April 2018, Dutch authorities apprehended four men sitting in a grey Citroen car parked in the diplomatic quarter of The Hague. The group had been under police surveillance since flying into the Netherlands from Russia a few days earlier.’

This event was not reported to the public by media outlets such as the BBC until the 4th October 2018, six months later. There was a co-ordinated release of information relating to this incident on that date, including a statement by the Dutch ministry of defence, a court indictment issued by the US, and a speech by the UK ambassador to The Netherlands. In short: four “Russian spies” were arrested, but all news of this was withheld at the time.

In a second report, also published on 4th October 2018, the BBC made comparisons between the incident in The Hague and the Skripal event in Salisbury on the 4th of March 2018. Like the Skripal story, the story of the Russians arrested in The Hague was framed as a narrative of incompetent secret agents. Heslop and Keep say the GRU operatives were under surveillance by Dutch secret services from the moment they landed in the Netherlands.

The swift surveillance of these GRU agents by the Dutch secret services reflects poorly on the performance of the UK’s secret services the previous month. In the Skripal case, the UK authorities were apparently unaware of two GRU agents who had been active in Europe for years. The agents were given visas to enter the country and so visit Salisbury, where they allegedly attacked former Russian spy Sergei Skripal with a nerve agent.

Like the Skripal incident, the Russian agents who were arrested outside the OPCW building in The Hague apparently had their identities confirmed by the Netherlands-based investigative group known as Bellingcat. In this case, Bellingcat said the GRU operatives arrested at The Hague were using their own names, and had not attempted to conceal their identities — unlike in the Skripal case. This Bellingcat report was published on 4th October 2018.

Heslop and Keep continue:

Alexei Moronets, Yevgeny Serebriakov, Oleg Sotnikov and Alexey Minin were all members of the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate, the GRU. Their Unit 26165 had sent them to The Hague on an operation aimed at hacking into foreign institutions of interest to the Kremlin.’

The allegation that the four Russians were part of “Unit 26165” appears in an indictment issued by the US on the 4th October 2018, which links this GRU unit with other alleged conspiracies to hack computer systems overseas, such as those of the Democratic National Committee in the US and — according to a UK government statement published on 4th October 2018 — the World Anti-Doping Agency in Canada.

It must first be noted that the Russian Federation was at the time — as it is at the time of writing — an elected member of the OPCW executive council. As such the OPCW is no more a “foreign institution” to Russia than it is to, for example, France, the UK or the US. Russian officials, like French, British and American, have access to the OPCW building as part of their duties within the organisation.

Heslop and Keep continue:

Offshore phishing attempts had failed, so the GRU men needed to conduct “close-access” hacking by getting physically near their target and latching onto vulnerable wifi networks.’

The claim that the GRU had been attempting to “phish” OPCW employees — that is, send them bogus emails designed to get them to reveal their passwords or other details — was made by the UK Ambassador to The Netherlands Peter Wilson in a speech he gave in The Hague on 4th October 2018. “The GRU can only succeed in the shadows,” Wilson said. “We all agree that where we see their malign activity, we must expose it together.”

Heslop and Keep omit a critical fact here: one of many facts they overlook. The four Russians were apprehended, but the Dutch authorities made no attempt to charge them. They were deported, and so the evidence against them was never tested in court. “The suspected Russian agents were sent home as it was not a criminal inquiry,” the BBC reported then-Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as saying two days later, on the 6th October 2018.

This is a significant omission. Heslop and Keep present a story about four Russians who allegedly travelled to The Netherlands with the intention to hack the networks of the OPCW headquarters in The Hague, and were apprehended by the Dutch secret services as they attempted to do so. But Heslop and Keep do not question the evidence around this incident because that evidence was never subjected to judicial scrutiny by the Dutch authorities.

2. The Douma atrocity, 7 April 2018

Heslop and Keep write:

The OPCW was of primary interest to the GRU because of the investigations being undertaken there.’

The investigations undertaken by the OPCW are of primary interest to 193 countries in the world: but the investigation that the OPCW undertook into the Douma atrocity is particularly significant because it opened a new front in the propaganda war on the OPCW that continues to this day.

Heslop and Keep continue:

A key event occurred just outside Damascus the week before the GRU men were apprehended in the Netherlands: the aerial deployment of chlorinated organic chemicals on a civilian residential block in the city of Douma, in which no fewer than 43 people died, and dozens more required hospitalisation.’

Douma was a key event because two weeks later the OPCW was able to send a team of investigators to the location of the alleged attack. OPCW experts visited Douma and conducted a forensic investigation on the ground, beginning on the 21st of April.

However, as noted, FUKUS did not wait for an OPCW team to report back from Douma before launching missile strikes on Syria on 14 April. FUKUS said these strikes targeted chemical weapons facilities operated by the Syrian government, and were intended to be a “strong deterrent” to the government — specifically, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — as a swift punishment for ordering a chemical weapons attack on his own people.

Why Assad would want to do this is not clear. Douma was controlled by a brutal Islamic group called Jaysh al-Islam at the time, but they were facing imminent defeat by Syrian government forces. The implication is Assad simply had an uncontrollable, psychotic desire to gas his own people — even though this was certain to draw an international response. Then-President Trump called him “mindless” and an “animal” on Twitter/X the next day.

The EU also immediately accused Assad, stating on 8 April that the horrific scene at Douma pointed to “yet another chemical attack by the [Assad] regime”. As Heslop and Keep say, chlorine was allegedly used in this attack: but they omit that a nerve agent like sarin — 543 times more deadly than chlorine — was initially believed to have been used as well because the victims appeared to have died in seconds, foaming at the mouth.

“Something was working on the nervous system [of the victims],” The Guardian reported a Syrian doctor as saying on the 12th of April, two days before the FUKUS missile strike. Heslop and Keep have an article by The Intercept among their sources that reports a local doctor as saying the victims’ injuries did “not resemble [a] chlorine attack” and were likely from “an organophosphate” like sarin, but they fail to mention this detail.

“The [OPCW] found no evidence of … nerve agents … at the site or in samples from the casualties — something of a surprise, because the suspected use of sarin had been one of the justifications for airstrikes,” The Intercept article reports in another passage Heslop and Keep do not take account of. They cite the article in their paper once only to support the claim that Kremlin-affiliated “journalists” had access to the Douma site before the OPCW did.

Also on the 12th of April, The Guardian and other media outlets reported two US officials as saying that blood and urine samples from the victims of [the Douma] attack “showed traces of chlorine and a nerve agent”. If verified, this claim would be significant. But it never was substantiated. In a post on Twitter/X almost a year later, Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins asked where the samples had gone after the OPCW team found no sign of nerve agent use at Douma.

“The U.S., Britain and France say Syrian leader Bashar Assad used a combination of chlorine gas and a nerve agent to poison his own people,” CBS News reported on 16 April. This is another article among Heslop and Keep’s sources containing critical facts they omit. They cite the CBS News article solely to support their claim that the OPCW team was initially “blocked [from the Douma site] by Russian military police”.

It is not clear that this is what actually happened. On 18 April, the OPCW released a statement as to why the team that was by then on the ground in Syria had not gained access to the site. The director general clarified this had not yet been allowed due to the concerns of accompanying United Nations Department of Safety and Security personnel, whose job it was to make sure the area was safe before the OPCW experts could start work.

Heslop and Keep continue:

When the attack on Douma occurred, the stories of bereaved families and traumatised survivors were quickly drowned out by a cacophony of conspiracy and obfuscation.’

This passage involves an appeal to emotion, invoking the grief of the bereaved families. But what happened to the bodies of their loved ones, which represented critical evidence? Heslop and Keep don’t ask. The bodies were, in fact, “secretly buried in [a] desperate bid to preserve chemical evidence” according to The Telegraph: but they were not exhumed for examination by OPCW experts afterwards.

To suppress such questions, FUKUS turned to the well-established strategy of ad hominem attacks and smears against any individual or group of individuals questioning the Douma events. An intense and ongoing campaign was launched to present sceptical or dissenting voices as “conspiracy theorists”. This campaign was co-ordinated across multiple media outlets, including television channels such as the BBC and newspapers such as The Times. ‘The War on the OPCW’ takes no account of any of this.

Heslop and Keep continue:

The claim that the chlorine attack had been “staged” by a humanitarian group known as the White Helmets was cycled through a nascent propaganda network involving Russian state television, shadow Twitter accounts and fringe English-language media.’

There is some evidence that The White Helmets are not as humanitarian as is claimedThe Intercept article referred to earlier that Heslop and Keep cite so selectively notes “the White Helmets only maintain a presence in rebel-controlled areas, as Douma was on the night of the attack”, and adds that the organisation is funded and trained by the “U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office”: two more facts Heslop and Keep don’t mention.

Heslop and Keep’s description of a “nascent propaganda network” cites an article published by The Guardian that is based on a report by the FUKUS-funded Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It is worth scrolling to the end of that article to read the corrections The Guardian was obliged to publish after it failed to contact the journalist Aaron Maté for comment before claiming he was “the most prolific spreader of disinformation on Syria”.

The fact that the OPCW team found no evidence of nerve agent at Douma created significant problems for FUKUS and OPCW officials at The Hague. FUKUS had attacked Syria on the basis of unverified photographs and videos: images that appeared to show people who had been struck dead in seconds by a nerve agent. But if there was no nerve agent at Douma, at least two important questions needed to be asked.

First, if the people whose bodies were found at the residential building in Douma had genuinely succumbed to some kind of poison gas in seconds, as it appeared from the photographs — but no nerve agent was there, as the OPCW team established — then why did they appear to have died so quickly, with foam around their mouths? This was a question FUKUS needed to avoid and suppress: something OPCW officials had to deal with.

The second question follows from the first, forming a potential answer to it. Could the horrific scene have been arranged to appear as if it was a nerve agent attack by the Islamic torturers who controlled the area at the time, using the bodies of people who died elsewhere? If so, FUKUS and Western media had apparently been deceived: a possibility that could not be countenanced.

With no evidence for a nerve agent at Douma, FUKUS could only double down on a dogged insistence that an attack by Syrian government forces using chlorine gas alone had caused this sudden, mass casualty event. The allegation chlorine gas had been used at Douma was there from the start, but now the allegation of nerve agent use had to be discounted.

The awkward fact remained that FUKUS had bombed Syria almost immediately after the Douma atrocity, without waiting for the OPCW team on the ground to report back on what they found—or did not find. This awkward fact now had to be omitted from the official narrative, and that is what Heslop and Keep do.

Anyone familiar with the history of chlorine gas attacks in the First World War knows that chlorine does not usually strike people dead in seconds, but causes a slow, agonising death through suffocation — with some victims having time to escape towards fresh air if they can. At Douma, people seemed to have dropped dead in open doorways. Nor does chlorine rapidly cause frothing at the mouth, a symptom associated with nerve agent poisoning.

Three expert toxicologists later confirmed to the OPCW investigators facts obvious to any layperson: in the photographs “the symptoms observed were inconsistent with exposure to chlorine”. However, this testimony was apparently removed from the investigators’ report by OPCW officials at The Hague, along with expert ballistics testimony that called the alleged means of delivery of the gas — canisters dropped from a helicopter — into question.

Whistleblowers emerged from the Douma investigation team to object to the way OPCW officials were suppressing their findings. José Bustani — the first director-general of the OPCW who had been forced out of his position by the US 20 years previously — was blocked by FUKUS from giving testimony to the UN Security Council about his concerns around Douma in October 2020. His statement was later published on YouTube.

FUKUS continued to double down on its assertion that chlorine alone had killed the people at Douma. The current OPCW director-general, Fernando Arias, attacked the whistleblowers from the Douma team as “individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence”. The issues raised by the whistleblowers were ignored and an “investigation and identification team” subsequently concluded that chlorine had killed the people at Douma and Assad was responsible.

None of this controversy is addressed by Heslop and Keep in their paper. Nowhere do they consider the fact that chlorine generally does not strike people dead in seconds, even though Heslop is a practising medical doctor with a long military career and responsibilities within the Australian Army as a CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) advisor. All of these issues are omitted if not deliberately overlooked.

3. The Skripal incident, 4 March 2018

Heslop and Keep note that the OPCW recognised Russia had completed the destruction of its stockpiles of chemical weapons on 27 September 2017. But they then suggest Russia had deceived the OPCW by hiding from it a chemical weapon — a nerve agent called “novichok” — which was apparently used by two GRU agents six months later to attack Sergei Skripal, a retired Russian double agent then living under his own name in Salisbury, UK.

Heslop and Keep write:

[T]he true status of Russia’s chemical weapons arsenal was revealed in gruesome scenes that unfolded in a picturesque English village.’

A minor point is that Salisbury is not a village. It is a city — defined by a 13th Century cathedral that the Russians who were accused of poisoning Skripal claimed they were visiting when they were interviewed by Russian state broadcaster RT on the 13th of September 2018, half a year after they apparently failed to carry out their orders. However, it shows how maskirovka or the firehose of falsehood involves a rapid, sloppy delivery of misinformation.

Far more significantly, Heslop and Keep’s suggestion that the alleged use of “novichok” showed the Russian state had directed the attack was rejected by the head of the UK’s chemical weapons facility at Porton Down — an OPCW approved laboratory. He said the scientists there were unable to establish where the nerve agent had been manufactured following the British foreign secretary’s insistence on German television that they had done so.

Heslop and Keep continue:

[A] local resident, Dawn Sturgess, who picked up the perfume bottle in which the nerve agent had been concealed, died after being exposed.’

Dawn Sturgess died four months after the Skripal incident, a detail Heslop and Keep omit. She was allegedly exposed to “novichok” not in Salisbury but Amesbury, a town eight miles away. Her partner, Charlie Rowley, apparently gave her the bottle: but he had no idea where it came from. He did however say the bottle was boxed and sealed, and claimed his hands became covered with “novichok” after he opened the package. He survived.

The Sturgess family have been fighting to find out what caused Dawn’s death for years. After her daughter won a legal case against the coroner, who had ruled he would not examine the circumstances leading to Dawn’s alleged exposure to “novichok”, the UK government agreed to set up an inquiry. However, this is not due to start until October 2024. Government lawyers are working to ensure the family is not shown sensitive evidence.

Heslop and Keep continue:

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused [the OPCW] of fabricating the Skripal evidence, asserting that investigators had in fact detected Agent BZ.’

The most important fact about the Salisbury events is that neither Skripal — nor his daughter Yulia, who was also apparently exposed to “novichok” at the same time — died. This has been attributed to the swift response of the UK’s health services including the then-chief nurse of the British Army, who happened to be a first responder. There was in fact no swift diagnosis of nerve agent poisoning according to the medics at Salisbury hospital.

Another significant fact is that Sergei and Yulia suddenly succumbed to the supposed effects of “novichok” at almost exactly the same time, having allegedly been exposed to the nerve agent hours earlier. Neither had the chance to seek help for the other as they rapidly passed out together on a bench. Agent BZ is a non-lethal nerve agent that quickly incapacitates targets: a weaponised hallucinogen developed by the US and NATO.

Heslop and Keep do not address the question of how two physiologically very different people — the diabetic, overweight 66-year-old Skripal and his healthy 33-year-old daughter — could be almost simultaneously overcome by the effects of a neurotoxin that they had allegedly separately touched several hours before. The Skripals apparently spent the time between their exposure and incapacitation eating and drinking in Salisbury city centre.

Heslop and Keep continue:

A sustained campaign aimed at undermining the OPCW’s reputation was launched by Russian diplomats, who accused the organisation of suppressing “the true details” of the Skripal investigation.’

As we have seen Heslop and Keep can be charged with accusing the other side of that of which they are guilty. Their paper omits “the true details” about Skripal and Sturgess, just as it omits critical facts about the Douma atrocity. The OPCW undermines its reputation through its refusal to consider what the Douma evidence potentially shows — as well as its position that the “novichok” allegedly used in Salisbury was a weapon of mass destruction.

“Novichok” is said to be up to 8,000 times more lethal than sarin, which is what was initially believed to have caused the sudden mass casualty event in Douma. It is said to be more lethal even than the UK-developed nerve agent VX which, before “novichok” appeared, was said to be the most lethal neurotoxin known. Unbelievably, both Skripals survived their alleged exposure to it after they separately received an incapacitating dose.

4. The Navalny incident, 20 August 2020

Almost two-and-a-half years after the Skripals were allegedly poisoned by “novichok” in Salisbury — following which they vanished, with no statement ever made by Sergei Skripal about what had happened to him — the nerve agent was again apparently used in an assassination attempt. As with the Skripal case, the deadly neurotoxin once again failed to kill its alleged target: this time the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Navalny was apparently overcome by the effects of “novichok” while on a domestic flight across Russia. At some point before he boarded the flight, GRU agents had somehow apparently contaminated the underpants he was wearing with the nerve agent; he began to experience severe symptoms while in the toilet of the aircraft. The pilots made an emergency landing at the city of Omsk, where Navalny was treated in hospital for two days.

Heslop and Keep write:

Nearing death, Navalny was medically evacuated to Berlin after fraught negotiations between German and Russian authorities.’

If Navalny’s life was in danger as a result of “novichok” poisoning, he was saved not by German medics in Berlin but by the pilots of the airliner he was in and the doctors who treated him at Omsk in the critical 48 hours after the aircraft’s emergency landing. It appears these doctors did not know that Navalny was meant to die. Furthermore, it seems Vladimir Putin himself allowed Navalny to be sent to Germany for further treatment.

“Alexei Navalny has been evacuated to a hospital in Berlin to be treated for suspected poisoning, after his wife and supporters begged Vladimir Putin to let him leave a Siberian hospital,” The Guardian reported in another article Heslop and Keep have among their sources; this is another detail they omit. Putin’s apparent act of compassion complicates the revelation that German doctors later allegedly found “novichok” in Navalny’s blood.

Why would Putin allow Navalny to leave Russia immediately after he had supposedly ordered his assassination? Why did GRU agents repeatedly use a nerve agent that is said to be incredibly deadly, but that consistently fails to kill its alleged targets? Why did the Russian pilots of the aircraft make an emergency landing so that Russian doctors could save Navalny’s life, if Putin wanted him to die? These are not questions Heslop and Keep ask.

Heslop and Keep continue:

Navalny had been targeted with a product of the novichok group, the signature chemical weapon class of Russian intelligence.’

The claim that “novichok” is the signature poison of Russian intelligence is made in the Oscar-winning film Navalny, which tells the story of this alleged poisoning. The film features Bellingcat’s Christo Grosev claiming “novichok” has the “insidious” property of completely disappearing from victims’ bodies within hours, so that they “appear to have died a natural death”. Maskirovka or the firehose of falsehood does not require logic.

This narrative is totally incoherent. How can “novichok” be the signature chemical weapon of Russian intelligence if all trace of it disappears within hours? If this property is real, how was it identified in Navalny’s blood days later? The formula is in the public domain, available to any chemist. As noted, the UK foreign secretary’s claim that Porton Down had found the nerve agent at Salisbury was made in Russia was rejected by the head of the laboratory.

Heslop and Keep continue:

Paralysed by this torrent of false accusations, the OPCW struggled to discern between real and imagined incidents.’

It is not clear how Heslop and Keep could possibly know what result the Russian propaganda assault that they have sought to describe in their paper could have had on the OPCW. There is no suggestion that they have interviewed OPCW officials about any of these incidents. There may have been a torrent of false accusations but the exercise of imagination appears to have been largely on their part.


The final part of ‘The War on the OPCW’ briefly reports allegations of chemical weapons use in Ukraine, alleged biological warfare on Ukrainian territory, and the alleged poisoning of peace negotiators. As stated at the start of this article and following Brandolini’s Law there are too many claims here for them all to be unpacked or fact checked, so we will leave all that to one side. This article is already three times longer than the paper it is a response to.

It is for the reader to decide if our focus on Heslop and Keep’s critical omissions has “falsified” — in a broad sense of Popper’s razor — the four claims we have looked at. There have been no alternative “conspiracy theories” offered in response to these four narratives. Theorising about conspiracies however is what Heslop and Keep have done: they have theorised about Russians conspiring to use hacking, poison and deception.

So what are we to conclude from ‘The War on the OPCW’? Rather than describing propaganda against the OPCW, the paper can itself be interpreted as part of a deep propaganda campaign. FUKUS stepped up the war on the OPCW after they prematurely launched missile strikes against Syria. This propaganda campaign has been conducted by FUKUS even at the level of the UN.

Governments can be deceived like any group of people; people are more likely to be deceived by lies if they are told lies that they want to hear. But unlike responsible adults, governments do not admit fallibility except in rare cases — and if they do, it is long after the event(s). FUKUS made a rush to judgment in response to Douma and they continue to double down on that rushed judgment to this day: even though all they have now is a dubious narrative around chlorine.

What were the four Russians who were arrested outside the OPCW building in The Hague doing there? Perhaps it did relate to Douma. We cannot know because the Dutch authorities did not seek to charge them. All we know is they travelled to the Netherlands without attempting to conceal their identities, and it wasn’t until six months later that the public were informed about the incident through a co-ordinated release of media reports.

The “novichok” narratives are exercises in cognitive dissonance. This nerve agent is supposed to be extraordinarily lethal and yet, out of six people allegedly exposed to it — Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, a police officer called Nick Bailey and Alexei Navalny — only Dawn Sturgess died, and more than five years later the Sturgess family are still waiting for an inquest to determine what actually led to her death.

It is significant that these false, inconsistent or partial narratives have been allowed to persist. They have been pushed by FUKUS but supported and legitimised by the OPCW: not by the expert OPCW staff who went to Syria and investigated the Douma atrocity, but by OPCW officials at The Hague. The uncomfortable reality is that the OPCW does not have real independence from powerful member states like FUKUS, if it ever did.

As noted at the start of this article, the OPCW has been subjected to propaganda attacks almost since its inception in 1997. The US first acted to undermine the organisation in 2002 when John Bolton — then the US under-secretary of state for arms control — forced its first director-general José Bustani to resign, after Bustani became an impediment to the push for the invasion of Iraq, a major US policy objective at the time.

Bolton falsely alleged Bustani was incompetent and apparently issued thinly-veiled threats against the highly-respected diplomat’s children to make him step down from his position. “We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York,” Bolton allegedly told him. The US was eventually able to remove Bustani after cutting its financial contribution to the OPCW to put pressure on the organisation.

Like the OPCW, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is based at The Hague, and Bolton’s moves against Bustani — which were clearly in contravention of the CWC — were delivered in parallel with his rejection of the ICC’s jurisdiction: a rejection made US law through the ‘The Hague Invasion Act’ of 2002. This law allows the US to use military force against the ICC if it seeks to prosecute US citizens for alleged war crimes.

The current director of the OPCW, Fernando Arias, will certainly be aware of the pressure José Bustani was subjected to by John Bolton 20 years ago. Other OPCW officials have also been intimidated. But if Arias or his family have been threatened, this has never emerged. All we know is that he is prepared to attack the credibility of his own organisation’s experts and suppress their professional concerns.

It is in this context that ‘The War on the OPCW’ must be read. Bustani lost his job because he threatened to undermine the US/UK narrative that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Two decades later, Heslop and Keep’s paper omits critical facts that threaten FUKUS claims that the Douma atrocity was caused by Assad using chlorine, and that the Kremlin uses “novichok” to poison its enemies.

The degree to which Heslop and Keep are aware their work omits critical facts from the incidents they discuss — and thereby contributes to a particular set of propagandised narratives in alignment with the objectives of FUKUS — is incidental to the observation that it does so. However the suspicion is that had they not omitted these critical facts their paper might not have been accepted for publication by Global Biosecurity.

The war on the OPCW is almost over, with FUKUS maskirovka — the firehose of falsehood — washing away the last vestiges of the organisation’s credibility around incidents such as the Douma atrocity. Governments that are not allied with FUKUS but still have influence within the OPCW must recognise this and publicly acknowledge the degree to which the organisation has been compromised.

(Featured Image: “File:The Hague Netherlands OPCW-01.jpg” by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.)


  • Tim Norman

    Tim Norman lives on the south coast of England and began his career in technology journalism in the 1990s writing about the then-emerging internet. He has worked in editorial production roles for local, national and international media and on daily, weekly and monthly publications. A member of the NUJ, he was Father of the Chapel at The Argus in Brighton when the newspaper went on strike in 2011.

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  • Tim Norman

    Tim Norman lives on the south coast of England and began his career in technology journalism in the 1990s writing about the then-emerging internet. He has worked in editorial production roles for local, national and international media and on daily, weekly and monthly publications. A member of the NUJ, he was Father of the Chapel at The Argus in Brighton when the newspaper went on strike in 2011.

    View all posts