The Skripal case and common sense

There has been no shortage of analysis of the Skripal case and possible Russian motivations for poisoning the former spy. They all fall flat: the Kremlin had no motive to commit such a crime. A little common sense is all one needs to conclude that whoever did wanted to escalate the conflict between Russia and the West even further.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May and Russian President Vladimir Putin together at the 2016 G20 summit in Hangzhou, China
British Prime Minister Theresa May and Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be holding meetings anytime soon – and that’s just what the Skripal poisoners wanted. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The Kremlin had no motive for poisoning Sergei Skripal
  • That Russian secret services wanted revenge is also implausible
  • Whoever did it wanted to exacerbate Russia-West tensions
  • The governments involved have played right into this trap

Gallons of ink have been spilled by experts, analysts and journalists around the world on the bizarre case of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal. Hundreds of subtle explanations and clever scenarios have been proposed. What seems to be absent from the turbulent discussions is common sense. In this specific case, a little clear thinking could have served as Occam’s razor, and a double-edged one at that. A bit of sober reflection could offer simple answers to some questions and pose some others that are, for the moment, sadly undervalued.

Could Russian special services or their unofficial subbranches have committed the crime? Of course they could have, like any other country’s secret operators – all secret services are the same. Could this attempt be politically useful for Russian authorities, that is, for the Kremlin, or more specifically for Russian President Vladimir Putin? No. GIS expert Dr. Pawel Kowal’s desire to reconstruct Russia’s possible motivations in the Skripal case is laudable; and yet, most of the versions he proposes do not stand up to scrutiny.

Was the poisoning a “punishment for treason”? For the Russian special services since the time not just of the KGB, but of the Tsarist Okhranka “the only possible outcome of betrayal is death”? This is the stuff of spy novel myths; dozens, if not hundreds of former Russian special services officers and military-industrial sector officials who changed sides have long been living in the West. These include, for example, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, former Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR) Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Zaporozhsky or Vil Mirzayanov, who says he is one of the creators of Novichok (the nerve agent used against Mr. Skripal and his daughter).

Was the poisoning a “punishment for treason”? This is the stuff of spy novel myths.

The parallels with the murder of another defector, Alexander Litvinenko, a former lieutenant colonel in the Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), are expected but questionable. Litvinenko, up to the last days of his life, remained a staunch political adversary of the Kremlin and actively participated in several shady enterprises and secret operations.

On the other hand, Mr. Skripal, to the best of our knowledge, had only financial motives for his work with the British intelligence service. In his new country, he lived the quiet life of a spy who came in from the cold (and was rewarded in gold).

Fake doctrine

Dr. Kowal also suggests it could have been a strike at the United Kingdom “as a weak link in the U.S.-led international system.” But did Brexit or “inept Labour opposition” really turn Great Britain into a failed state? Who could have thought so? That it is part of the British character to not give up even when cornered is well-known in Russia (the UK’s ally in World War II), as is the fact that “Theresa May operates under the shadow of Margaret Thatcher: she may want to prove she has ‘Falkland guts,’” as GIS expert Professor Stefan Hedlund wrote.

That a provocative assassination attempt would consolidate, rather than demoralize, both the UK and Western countries as a whole was rather obvious. And that is exactly what happened.

Perhaps it was a rehearsal of hybrid war, “a crucial field test of the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine”? To believe that, you have to seriously believe that the Russian regime’s strategic goal is to crush the West as such until it collapses; that it is propelled by a senseless, irrational hatred of the West – that Russia is the new Mordor and President Putin the new Sauron. That Vladimir Putin will not rest “till the dark lord lifts his hand over dead sea and withered land.”

Former Russian scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who claims to be one of the creators of Novichok Skripal case Russian motivations
Vil Mirzayanov, who helped create the Novichok nerve agent, is one of many defectors that Russian secret services have not taken “revenge” against. They also had little motive for taking out Mr. Skripal. © dpa

Perhaps there are people who believe that. But there is much more reason to think that the Russian autocracy first and foremost wants to be left alone; that it strives for acknowledgment of its right to act at its own discretion within what it considers its sphere of legitimate interest. It refuses to be limited to strictly internal mattes, but is far from having aims at world domination

After all, the term “peaceful coexistence” was invented in Soviet Russia back in the 1920s, when the mere survival of the Soviet regime under Western pressure was far from certain. As for the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague confessed recently that he invented the term and that such a doctrine simply does not exist.

Beginning of the analysis

It is refreshing that GIS experts have not put forward another version, suggested many times by amateur political observers: that the Skripal poisoning was an attempt by Vladimir Putin to rally supporters ahead of the presidential elections in Russia two weeks later. There was no need for a risky operation of that kind whatsoever – anti-Western sentiment has been a permanent factor in Russian politics for a long time anyway, and the results of the elections were completely identical to forecasts made a while before.

The only unexpected result of those two weeks was not the mobilization of the electorate, but a slight decrease in turnout, which was lower than in 1991, 1996, 2000 and even 2008, when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, not Mr. Putin, was the ruling party’s presidential candidate.

The Russian regime is far from monolithic. President Putin is certainly not the only actor.

For all that, it is very important to note Dr. Kowal’s point that the Russian regime is far from monolithic. President Putin is certainly not the only actor in Russian politics – not even the only one who can act on the global scene. He is also right when he says that no level of internal heterogeneity in an autocracy can exonerate the autocrat from the effects of his own political construction. Yet this is only the beginning of an analysis, not the end.

Innocent bully?

Certainly, in recent years Russia has done a lot to earn the “bad guy” badge. Russia is currently paying for it, and will continue to do so for a long time. But does it eliminate the necessity to work out the state of Russian affairs and the patterns of Russian behavior?

The official Russian reaction to accusations, though rude and clumsy, is easy to understand. Imagine a school bully who was – finally! – falsely accused. Of course he will sincerely protest – this was something he actually didn’t do. He will apply this sense of injured innocence to all his past (real) transgressions: he was always falsely accused! If there is a certain precedent of false accusations, like the Zinoviev Letter, the bully will be overjoyed. This reaction was easy to predict.

The behavior of the UK government is much less explicable. We are all accustomed to the British commitment to due process. But if your certainty is absolute, if you have proof that is as certain as a smoking gun, why not present it? Why do you appeal to obviousness and past transgressions, but ignore multiple testimonials that the Russian central government long ago lost control of Novichok (and other military toxins)?

The UK government’s position is unexpectedly weak, which is probably the most mysterious element of the whole story.

We can recall, for instance, the 1995 murder of the banker Ivan Kivelidi which is now being connected to Novichok. What do we do with the New York Times article of 1999, which reported that the main testing site for Novichok was in Uzbekistan, and that it was decontaminated and demilitarized with American help? Is that article misinformation, too? The UK government’s position is unexpectedly weak, which is probably the most mysterious element of the whole story.

Goal achieved

One thing is certain: the sponsors of this attempt, whoever and wherever they are (whether they are inside or outside Russia is unknown – and therefore both options have equal probability), wanted to escalate the conflict between Russia and the West even further. That goal has been achieved.

This has happened to no small degree because the behavior of nearly all the governments involved in this story recalls the title of the popular movie Dumb and Dumber. Because they have played right into the hands of those who have engineered this scandal. And the devil, as usual, rejoices.

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