Something about this Russian spy and his daughter doesn’t add up for me. Since I wrote my previous posts, it has transpired that the two were attacked with a nerve agent. This makes things doubly serious, firstly because nerve agents are so deadly that collateral damage is hard to avoid – and with 21 people now said to be affected, there has been plenty of that – and secondly because nerve agents, compared with poisons, are generally only accessible to state bodies. This puts the attack on Skirpal in the same bracket as the one which killed Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium-210. Nerve agents and polonium are not things you can buy in a shop or make at home – at least, we hope not.
So all the fingers are pointing towards a Russian government operation. But if that’s the case, the rules of the game have changed:
It seems to reflect a breakdown in the old etiquette of espionage, not only foreshadowing an even more vicious “shadow war” to come, but also challenging Western states to come up with new ways to respond to and deter these kinds of outrages.
In itself, former spies are not usually considered targets, according to the old rules. It’s assumed that they will be debriefed, squeezed of all remaining information of value they may possess, but typically they then semi-retire into grateful obscurity, their knowledge increasingly dated.
So either the Russians have blatantly broken the rules – which served them equally well as us, and were maintained throughout the Cold War – or it was not a Russian government operation. Or put another way, if something doesn’t follow the normal rules of a government operation then it probably wasn’t a government operation.
So let’s suppose it was carried out on Putin’s orders. Why would he do this? The easy answer is “to send a message”. Okay, to whom? For what purpose? To discourage spies within his ranks? Sure, but Putin grew up in the KGB during the Cold War and they’d have been equally motivated then, but they stuck to the rules. What has changed that would make someone versed in old-school spycraft deviate so drastically from the rules? Did this Skirpal still have valuable information to disclose? If that’s the case, why was he wandering around Salisbury eating in restaurants and loafing around with his daughter on park benches?
Perhaps it was for personal revenge. If so, why Skirpal? Of all the people on Putin’s shit-list, was he really that high up? And worth risking a massive diplomatic rift with Britain over? People need to stop looking at Putin as some sort of pantomime villain. He’s a smart man and although his methods of running a country are dubious at best and his morals non-existent, he is not some irrational lunatic who lashes out for reasons of personal revenge without thinking through the consequences. If Skirpal was killed on Putin’s orders, it would not have been to satisfy his ego. We need a better explanation than that.
Some are saying he is sending a warning to Britain. I don’t know why: other than having a vote on the UN security council and (for now) having a say in any sanctions passed by the EU, Britain isn’t much of a threat to Russia. For Putin, it is better to have Britain on-side, or luke-warm, or perhaps even cool rather than dead-set against them. Nothing Putin has said or done suggests he has some huge chip on his shoulder about the UK, in the way he does the United States. Britain and Russia clash over certain policies for sure, e.g. Syria, but I can’t see how murdering Skirpal in such a manner would help with that. Again, we need to stop thinking of Putin as a cartoon villain, coming up with elaborate plans to warn or punish his enemies.
So even though this looks like a Russian government operation, I believe we need to come up with a plausible theory as to why they’d have carried it out as they did, risking an extremely serious rift with the UK. How would it benefit Russia? So far, most commentary has been of similar quality to that which supposes Putin swung the US election for Trump, i.e. implausible and often demonstrable nonsense. And as I said in my previous post, that’s half the problem: having been sold the idea that Putin is a Bond villain working endless nefarious schemes, we’re now incapable of thinking rationally on any subject remotely related to Russia. Here’s what the Russians themselves say:
Russia was not involved in the attempted murder of an ex-spy and is willing to help with a UK inquiry, the country’s foreign minister has said.
Are the Russians playing an exceedingly clever game here, helping out in the inquiry knowing full well they did it? This is a bit risky, isn’t it? When Russian agents allegedly went about assassinating people in Turkey, they didn’t rush to help Ankara with any investigation. They either denied it or said nothing. When they assassinated a Chechen in Qatar and their guys got caught, they defended them to the hilt. When the Israelis assassinated someone in a Dubai hotel room, they denied everything and went quiet. The only times I’ve heard of a criminal assisting the police in their investigation has been in fictional stories or on those TV shows which show the guy in prison having been remarkably stupid in not making himself scarce. My guess is that if the Russian government did order this hit, they’d have in place a very well thought out plan of how to handle the resulting diplomatic crisis, and it would not have involved cooperating with the investigation.
A lot of this doesn’t make sense to me, and only fits the “Putin did it” narrative if we assume he’s the evil genius desperate politicians and the idiotic media say he is. I don’t mind the Russian government being the primary suspect, but I’d like to see a proper theory advanced that stands up to scrutiny, and all other possibilities explored and ruled out, before we decide to close the Russian embassy in London and send them all packing.
What I’m saying is I am not very happy with politicians, the media, and a lot of the public simply saying “Putin did it, obvs” and demanding retaliatory actions without having anything to support the allegation other than the absolute mountain of shite that’s been written about the man in the past 18 months.