Leaves on the line, Putin to blame

Let’s talk about this Russian spy and his daughter who have taken ill in Salisbury:

The government’s emergency committee Cobra is to be updated on the police probe into the suspected poisoning of a former Russian double agent.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have spent a third night in a critical condition in hospital after being found unconscious in Salisbury.

Scientists at the UK’s military research facility at Porton Down are examining an “unknown substance”.

Met Police counter terrorism officers have extended cordons in the city.

I assume the Met Police are there because local plod lacks the competence to handle such a case. So ultimately we now have diversity-hire Cressida Dick in charge of the investigation. If I were a Russian holed up in a potting shed on a Salisbury allotment with an empty syringe in my bag, I’d breathe a sigh of relief.

Mr Skripal and his daughter were found slumped and unconscious on a bench outside the Maltings shopping centre on Sunday afternoon.

The two victims should be grateful they didn’t live in Glasgow. Would anyone have noticed?

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said: “Honourable members will note the echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

“I say to governments around the world that no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go unsanctioned or unpunished.”

What sanctions or punishments resulted from Litvinenko’s murder? And are double-agents really innocent? Was Kim Philby?

Okay, let’s talk more seriously. Firstly, this is relevant:

Tony Brenton, the former British ambassador to Russia, suggested that Mr Skripal would have had many enemies – including many former colleagues

He said: “The fact that he blew a whole range of Russian agents, there may be personal animosities there.

“In most Russians’ minds he would be categorised as a traitor. There are people there who would be delighted to see him dead.”

Russia is a dangerous place with no shortage of murderous psychopaths. If somebody gets murdered, there could be several reasons for it. If the deceased happens to be involved in questionable activities, e.g. shady business deals or spying, their list of enemies will be long indeed. Similarly, journalists whose work exposes corruption and malfeasance in Russia will also make a lot of enemies, many of whom will want them dead. In short, a Russian oligarch, spy, or journalist turning up dead does not in itself imply Putin ordered the murder.

Now it may be that Putin is happy with the outcome, but that doesn’t mean it was his doing. It is an article of faith among lefties that the CIA was behind the 1973 coup in Chile that ousted Salvador Allende and brought Augusto Pinochet to power. There is absolutely no evidence of this, and enough evidence showing the American government was somewhat surprised by the developments in Santiago, but lefties simply point to previous American interference in Chile and the undeniable fact that the US would have been quite pleased with the outcome as proof of their involvement. Unfortunately, that is not how historical claims are adjudicated and nor are criminal matters. If we are going to accuse Putin of ordering a hit on a journalist or spy, we need to at least acknowledge that he may well have had nothing to do with it. A lot of commentary in the western press doesn’t do this, and openly states that Putin murders journalists. They then, often in the same paragraph, complain about fake news coming from Russia.

That’s not to say Putin is innocent. Under the conditions of his rule, life for journalists has been made very dangerous indeed, and this is appalling. He certainly bears much responsibility for opposition politicians and journalists being killed in broad daylight, as Boris Nemtsov was, and the standard practice of stitching up a couple of young Chechens each time is happening on his watch. He has also created the conditions under which the words “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” get interpreted in a manner in keeping with English historical standards. He may not even need to utter them: an ambitious soul might decide to do Putin a favour by knocking someone off before he’s passed any remarks. In a feudal system such as Putin’s Russia, doing the king an unsolicited favour might reap substantial rewards.

So Putin has a lot to answer for, but that doesn’t mean we’re sure he’s tried to kill this guy and his daughter in Salisbury. There are simply too many possibilities, and we need to be sure before saying something daft. Thankfully, someone understands this:

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said: “This investigation is at the early stages and any speculation is unhelpful…

Indeed, but perhaps he should have had a word with Boris Johnson:

The UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian involvement in the collapse of former spy Sergei Skripal, Boris Johnson has said.

The foreign secretary said he was not pointing fingers at this stage, but described Russia as “a malign and disruptive force”.

Is this helpful? This is even more stupid:

The Russian state has denied responsibility for his poisoning, but author of “Spycraft Rebooted”, Edward Lucas, claimed on the BBC the attack was an “act of war” if Russia was found to be behind the attack.

He said: “If Russia is behind it then it means they are taking this to a whole new level, it is in effect a declaration of war from the Russians to bump off someone like that – if they did it.

Supposing Putin calls up Theresa May this morning and says yup, it was me. Are we going to go to war with Russia? No, we’re not. We’ll piss and moan and kick some diplomats out, and go back to doing nothing. I remember when a Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine, almost certainly by Russian-backed militias operating hand-in-glove with Russian forces. Everyone fell over themselves to avoid having to actually do anything, probably at the behest of the Germans for whom commercial interests in Russia are worth far more than a few hundred dead passengers. At the very worst, there will be calls for sanctions which the EU won’t support. So save the tough-talk, nobody believes you.

But the west has a far larger problem here. Russia has been held up as the bogeyman ever since America’s Democrats couldn’t accept the fact that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election because she was an appalling candidate. Nowadays, whenever a vote threatens to go against the interests of the ruling classes, they accuse the Russian government of interference without offering any evidence other than vague reports of “Russian bots” operating with a $15k budget targeting Facebook users with unhelpful stories. This lame excuse was rolled out to explain the establishment’s humiliating defeat over Brexit, it was preemptively deployed when Macron losing to Le Pen was still a theoretical possibility, and Samantha Power – Obama’s ambassador to the UN – is now accusing Russia of throwing the Italian election. Whenever something doesn’t go the way of the ruling classes in the west these days, prominent figures brazenly accuse Putin of interference. It is irresponsible in the extreme, not only because it damages relations with Russia for no good purpose and encourages ludicrous calls for extremely harmful retaliatory measures, but it weakens their position when something happens for real.

This is a classic case of the boy crying wolf once too often. If high-ranking politicians are accusing Putin of nefarious deeds on a daily basis, each time sounding increasingly deranged, why should anyone care when he’s charged with poisoning a spy in Salisbury? And why should the Russians care? Mueller’s investigation into supposed Russian interference in the US presidential election has been running for well over a year, and nothing of any substance has been found, yet the cacophony has only gotten louder. An act of war, says Ed Lucas? Well, he’s a bit late to that particular party:

Why should we expect Russia to behave honourably in this poisonous political environment? Even if Putin personally ordered the hit on Skripal, the British authorities are never going to find out, let alone gather enough evidence to do anything other than ratchet up the existing hysteria. Will anyone even notice?

Finally, I’ve heard several remarks over the past day or two to the effect that Putin, and Russians generally, never forget those who cross them and hold grudges. Well, maybe that’s true but I don’t see why this should necessarily be a bad thing. Consider our own politicians, for example, many of whom seem to have forgotten that the IRA were murderous thugs who killed and maimed innocent British citizens on our own soil. Our memories are so short that the man who showed solidarity with these terrorists and invited them to parliament is now the leader of the opposition, and his past dalliances with groups openly hostile to Britain are airily dismissed with a wave of the hand. And do you think anyone in Moscow is advocating giving social housing to returning ISIS fighters? The question ought not to be why Russia holds grudges and kills traitors, but why we are so forgiving of those in our own ranks.

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34 thoughts on “Leaves on the line, Putin to blame

  1. “Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine, almost certainly by Russian-backed militias” – that’s almost certainly impossible for too many reasons. Unless you call the Russian army “Russian-backed militias”.

  2. This confusion and uncertainty is part of the main Russian strategy for perception disintegration. Russia has always been weaker than its rivals throughout history and thus relies on disinformation and perception management to manage its internal and external affairs.

    It is perhaps the first truly post-modern state. Not knowing what is true or who attacked this guy is all part of the plan to confuse and dumbfound. It has and is working very well for them.

    Interestingly enough I am currently reading (as far as I know?) the only English translation of ‘Almost Zero’ by Natan Dubovitsky, long alleged to be the pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s advisers and chief architect of this post-modern disinformation strategy. Reading about that Surkov helps remove some of the fog about Russia and its tactics.

  3. that’s almost certainly impossible for too many reasons. Unless you call the Russian army “Russian-backed militias”.

    The most plausible explanation I have is the Russian army gave some rag-tag bunch of militiamen a sophisticated weapons system that was tied into the Russian army’s systems, but allowed the militia to identify the aircraft and fire upon it. The Russian military, despite their faults, is unlikely to have mistaken an airliner for a military aircraft. A rag-tag militia however…

  4. About personal revenge.
    Some years ago, there was the tragic air crash when two planes heading at right angles collided over Swiss airspace. It was put down to a mistake by some Swiss air traffic controller.
    On one of them, were family of some Russian gangster.
    Some time later, the air traffic controller was murdered. The rumour goes, on the order of the gangster.
    So “personal motives” could–as you say, Tim–be high on the agenda here and absolutely nothing to do with mastermind Putin.(Does he stroke a white cat, whilst entertaining his henchmen at the Kremlin?)

  5. Whether something is an act of war depends a lot of context. And in this context, it isn’t an act of war, because neither side has the slightest intention of going to war over it.

    When Russia was Communist it killed quite a few agents who were going to turn over information to the West, including some outside the USSR. But they weren’t acts of war either, because, again, neither side was ever going to go to war over any such thing. If the USSR had been a minnow with no-one to protect it, then yes, any of these killings might have been act of war because America may have decided to crush them over it. But it wasn’t a minnow, and so none of these constituted acts of war in the actual circumstances.

  6. I wonder what the feasibility of organising a hit on Lugovoy (the guy says to have killed litvenenko) with enough plausible deniability to not get in UK legal trouble, but to leave the Russians with the impression in no uncertain terms that killing people on our soil is not following the rules properly.

  7. @Tim

    The Russian military, despite their faults, would have never given this powerful system to rag-tag-anything. Your assumption that it was a mistake is unsubstantiated.

    I have not been following lately, but I think Bellingcat has reconstructed the full chain of command from OSINT by now.

  8. Remember how a Russian MP reported that the apartment building in Volgodonsk was blown up three days before it happened? Now THAT was probably a mistake.

  9. I feel quite conflicted. Part of me deplores the Russian gangstery extra-legal approach to these things. Part of me wishes our useless politicians would get a bit more like them. Two examples suffice:
    1. The ex-British ISIS scumbags who have been caught and now we don’t want them back. Good. But…a giant planet sized ‘but’…some warped cunt in the British establishment has told the yanks in no uncertain terms they mustn’t be killed. How is that in my interest as a British citizen?
    2. Round about the time Terry Waite was captured in Lebanon a Russian was also taken. The KGB worked out the orgchart of the terrorists / those making demands for his release. They captured a bunch of the terrorists and sent the heads of two of them in a box back to the terrorists’ ‘head office’. Said: our man free today or we do the same to the others and then we’re coming for you – and we know where you and your families live. He was freed the same day. Terry Waite was handcuffed to a radiator for many years. I kind of prefer the Russian approach here.

  10. @Rob Harries – Perception disintegration? The first post-modern state? Eh?

    More water with it I think.

    Russia is an ailing second rate power, which is currently really only a success if you’re its leader or his best mates. And I suspect they only indulge in these shenanigans to prop up their egos; not a sign of confidence.

    Russia’s world influence comes via its fuel supplies to Germany.

    It’s only in the papers in the US because of Trump Derangement Syndrome and in the UK because of Remoaning and whatever nutter in MI6 keeps briefing the Terriblegraph.

    No-one is Asia gives two shits about the place.

  11. @MC

    That is precisely the point. Russia is weaker than its rivals and therefore engages in tactics to cloud the truth about their true power and influence. By making everyone (including their own citizens) confused you cant size them up properly and therefore take a more cautious approach as if they were as powerful as we think.

    They love all the guff about Russian interference, makes them appear more influential than they are.

  12. “So ultimately we now have diversity-hire Cressida Dick in charge of the investigation. If I were a Russian holed up in a potting shed on a Salisbury allotment with an empty syringe in my bag, I’d breathe a sigh of relief.”

    If I were an innocent Brazilian bloke, though, I’d be shitting myself.

  13. Russia is weaker than its rivals and therefore engages in tactics to cloud the truth about their true power and influence.

    Yes, but everyone* knows the truth. The Terriblegraph seems to run a Russian hysteria story twice a week. If you look at the comments it’s evident that its readers don’t believe a word.

    *Well not everyone, but nearly everyone. And they certainly don’t care.

    Putin is clearly an intelligent man, so he knows that all this stuff is in the news for external reasons, not because of the Evil Machinations of That Genius in the Kremlin. But he carries on because he’s insecure.

    He’s a bit like Max Clifford; sure he makes a bob or two and gets his stories in the papers, but he’s still a twat.

  14. I wonder what the feasibility of organising a hit on Lugovoy (the guy says to have killed litvenenko) with enough plausible deniability to not get in UK legal trouble, but to leave the Russians with the impression in no uncertain terms that killing people on our soil is not following the rules properly.

    It’s easily feasible, but why would we? We know Putin doesn’t really threaten the interests of the ruling class in the way they say he does, so why go to all the trouble of murdering people over it?

    But you can be sure that anyone who threatened the interests of the ruling class would be dispatched in short order. Anyone remember this:

    The death of MI6 spy Gareth Williams, whose body was found in a padlocked sports bag, was probably an accident, police have said.

    Last year, a coroner said it was likely Mr Williams, 31, from Anglesey, had been unlawfully killed in August 2010.

    But the Metropolitan Police said an evidence review had found “it was more probable” no other person was present when he died in his London flat.

    I have no idea what this poor sod did or knew, but he paid for it with his life. And across the pond, look at the fate of all those who crossed the Clintons over the years. So yes, knocking people off and denying it is well within our capabilities, but it would need to be for the right reasons. Sending a garbled message to Putin isn’t one of them.

  15. Good. But…a giant planet sized ‘but’…some warped cunt in the British establishment has told the yanks in no uncertain terms they mustn’t be killed.

    I have it on reasonable authority that they are being killed at an alarming rate. Good.

  16. If I were an innocent Brazilian bloke, though, I’d be shitting myself.

    Indeed! I was going to add that myself!

  17. A ‘spurious-but-amusing’ conspiracy theory from the fifth estate yesterday had the FSB behind this, aiming at a domestic Russian spook audience with a message of ‘don’t talk to the Roger Stones and involve us in time wasting American politics’.
    Far fetched perhaps, but I can see Putin getting bored with the side effects of Trump’s Clintonectomy.

  18. I have it on reasonable authority that they are being killed at an alarming rate. Good.

    That may generally be true, and we are indeed whacking the little fuckers while they’re still in their black pyjamas running around with AKs. But…not at all in the case of the two captured fuckers. They’re very much alive and likely to stay that way unfortunately.

  19. But…not at all in the case of the two captured fuckers. They’re very much alive and likely to stay that way unfortunately.

    That is indeed unfortunate.

  20. You’re such a Russian stooge Tim…

    Joking aside, I agree with you that the press is too quick to fling accusations. Of course I think there is a possibility it was a Russian hit. That’s probably even likely, although only just as there are criminal possibilities. And if it was the spies, it probably goes some way up the chain of command but there is going to be plausible deniability at the top (and I doubt Putin spends too much time personally worrying about individual spies).

    I do wish that we could do a better job of protecting our former sources though. Doesn’t help persuade future ones to come onside. I do wonder what will happen eventually with the guy who disclosed the state-sponsored doping system. Hopefully he’s not seen as being in the spy game.

    As for Malaysian airlines, I think it’s pretty established that the BUK was effectively Russian army. And the guys running it weren’t much better-trained than ragtag militia (although Russia did have some capable units in theatre, they had many ‘semi-pros’ too). As pointed out there was a lot of evidence that the BUK had driven in from Russia not long before.

  21. I do wish that we could do a better job of protecting our former sources though. Doesn’t help persuade future ones to come onside.

    We’re exceptionally good at hounding our soldiers through endless “war crimes” trials (both from Northern Ireland and Iraq) while letting the people they fought come to the UK and do as they please.

  22. So the spy is a wrong in and besides we can’t touch Putin so we just ignore it? This is our country and I don’t like to see any third world nation (which Russia is) run roughshod over our laws, anything we can do should be done.

  23. So the spy is a wrong in and besides we can’t touch Putin so we just ignore it?

    If we’re sure it’s Putin, then let’s do something. I have no idea what. But let’s not do something daft when we’re not sure it’s Putin, just so we can look tough.

    This is our country and I don’t like to see any third world nation (which Russia is) run roughshod over our laws, anything we can do should be done.

    I agree, but we’ve been letting third-worlders treat our laws with contempt at least since I’ve been able to read the internet, so it’s hardly Putin’s fault that he thinks we’ve gone soft.

  24. Nerve agent and policeman on critical list, this will be hard to ignore I hope. I’m not interested in May just looking tough I’m hoping we can show some genuine spine regardless of cost,I don’t care what Putin does in his own country as that’s a matter for Russians but I do care deeply about the violation of our own laws in this case and in any others you may care to mention.

  25. The two victims should be grateful they didn’t live in Glasgow. Would anyone have noticed?

    That’s a new keyboard and screen you owe me. >};o)

  26. Some years ago, there was the tragic air crash when two planes heading at right angles collided over Swiss airspace. It was put down to a mistake by some Swiss air traffic controller.

    That’s right, the story is well known. The Russian was a Chechen and had some sort of obligation to murder the person who caused the death of his relative. He fled back to Russia afterwards, and nothing was done. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but Russia is full of dangerous psychopaths.

  27. Not that it matters much in the grand scheme of things, but the guy is an Ossetian, and a deputy-minister in North Ossetia by now. So not enough of a murderous psychopath to qualify for an MP seat in Moscow apparently.

  28. Not that it matters much in the grand scheme of things, but the guy is an Ossetian, and a deputy-minister in North Ossetia by now.

    Blimey, I didn’t know that! Ossetian: yes, sorry.

    So not enough of a murderous psychopath to qualify for an MP seat in Moscow apparently.

    It’s probably more of a requirement than an obstacle in some branches of Russian politics.

  29. A curious case of Chinese whispers on this thread regarding the Bodensee crash and the knifed air traffic controller. The man who killed the controller is an Ossetian, Vitaly Kaloyev. (Ossetians, unlike their neighbors in the Russian Northern Caucasus, are mostly Christian.) I have seen no evidence that Kaloyev is a psychopath or that some ancient custom required him to spill blood. What is known is that Kaloyev lost his wife and both of his children in the crash and later stabbed to death the traffic controller he believed was responsible for the disaster. Kaloyev then returned to his hotel and stayed there until arrested the day after.

  30. I have seen no evidence that Kaloyev is a psychopath or that some ancient custom required him to spill blood.

    Okay, I was probably going off something I read in the Daily Mail, which doesn’t exactly downplay the sensationalism. But allow me to read this back to you:

    I have seen no evidence that Kaloyev is a psychopath…what is known is that Kaloyev lost his wife and both of his children in the crash and later stabbed to death the traffic controller he believed was responsible for the disaster.

    I don’t know what the exact definition of psychopath is, but someone who stabs an air traffic controller to death for (supposedly) making the error that caused the crash which killed his wife and kid in a premeditated, planned attack long after the event probably falls into the bracket somewhere. According to the newspapers, he stabbed the guy to death in front of his family. At his trial, he said he didn’t remember doing it. Normal, balanced people generally don’t act in this way.

  31. “I don’t know what the exact definition of psychopath”

    – it is this trait that is sufficiently widespread in the population of the territory so that sending a unit of soldiers to a neighboring country to shoot down a Boeing becomes a reliably plannable and executable operation.

  32. I have a long-standing personal theory that socialism in all it’s ugly forms makes life so easy and uncomplicated (at least while there is still money in the system) that people become totally divorced from ever having to make a hard decision. In a life lived this way, it’s easy to forgive murderers you’ve never met and rapists who live in another city. Consequences just don’t exist under socialist systems, there is always another safety net and another check in the mail next week. It changes people into docile animals (a feature, I’m sure).

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