The latest piece of Kremlin skullduggery – the attempted murder by nerve agent of a former spy and his daughter in an English cathedral city – has already prompted a dramatic change in how Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is treated.
Moscow has been rattled by Britain’s swift imposition of sanctions after very publicly concluding that Moscow tried to eliminate former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, who spied for MI6, in Salisbury nearly two weeks ago.
British scientists identified the nerve agent as Russian manufactured and London gave Moscow a deadline to explain why Skripal, his daughter and a British policeman, who helped the unconscious victims, were left fighting for their lives.
The Kremlin had, for years, become accustomed to the idea that after it murdered a journalist or politician at home, used a radioactive poison to kill a defector in London, bombed Syrian hospitals and schools, invaded Georgia or Ukraine, launched crippling cyber attacks abroad or meddled in other countries’ elections, it could blandly deny involvement and there would be a tepid Western response.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West imposed economic sanctions on Russia and visa bans on some close Putin associates, but the Kremlin said the penalties had little effect and Moscow’s finances had suffered much more from a drop in oil prices than sanctions.
Russia again expected Britain and the rest of the world to swallow Kremlin equivocation, stalling, and mendacious bullshit for weeks or months before taking action, if taking any at all.
After all, it took a decade before London carried out a thorough investigation into the 2006 radioactive poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvenenko, which ultimately concluded the Kremlin was resposible. Holland reacted so timidly to Russia’s shooting down of an airliner, packed with Dutch adults and children, over Ukraine in 2014 that any censure has been almost imperceptible.
Moscow is like an oafish, un-civilized guest that comes uninvited into your home, behaves rudely, but expects your own good manners to prevent any ungracious response. Moscow never expected London to react so bluntly.
However, the British government warned that this time there wouldn’t be any dilly-dallying, even as Moscow begun its usual indignant denials in that smirky, plausible deniability manner intended to convey “sure we did it, but how can you prove it or what can you do about it?”.
Moscow expected the usual Western polite caution, but after the deadline expired, the Russians experienced something alien and very un-nerving. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and said more penalties would be imposed if Moscow didn’t show a little honesty and contrition. That has led to indignation magnified to fury because the West is no longer even pretending to believe Putin’s lies.
Various motives have been suggested for why Moscow would carry out such an outrageous attack at this time.
Some believe it’s for domestic Russian consumption, to buff up Putin’s bare-chested strongman image ahead of this weekend’s presidential elections. Any condemnation and penalties for the Salisbury incident bolster Kremlin propaganda that Russia is beset by enemies who only Putin can counter.
However, a more sinister motive could be that the discovery of the nerve agent and its provenance wasn’t due to Russian intelligence bungling, but a deliberate, chilling demonstration of the effects of biological warfare and to show that Russia still possesses the substance, despite it being banned under international treaty.
A strong signal has already been sent to Moscow by London and the fact that Britain’s NATO, European and other friends have lent united support means that Putin’s mockery and lies will no longer suffice.
Even US President and Putin idoliser, Donald Trump, has been forced by rational actors in his administration to admonish Moscow over the Salisbury attack, however half-heartedly. Months after Congress overwhelmingly voted to impose extra sanctions over Russia’s 2016 presidential election interference, the White House finally penalized a few more Russian individuals and intelligence-related entities.
But more real punishment for Moscow must follow. More of Putin’s cronies, who profess undying love for Russia but can’t stand to live there, must be denied visas and have their ill-gotten gains frozen.
Revealing where Putin has hidden the estimated $40—120 billion he has looted from Russia should be considered.
A person with knowledge of such things in Washington said Western countries, including Britain, have developed devastating countermeasures to Russia’s cyber-attacks which have caused billions in economic losses, disrupted nuclear and conventional power plants, endangered passengers by interfering in air control systems, and meddled in US and other elections. But he said the West does not want to reveal its capabilities, which will stay hidden until a Russian military or all-out cyber attack becomes imminent.
Some in the UK have mentioned increased military aid to Ukraine, fighting Russian invasion since 2014, as a possible sanction. Britain provides training but no deadly weapons. Providing those seems an excellent idea.
Not only would Ukrainian troops be able to eliminate many Russian soldiers but Moscow wouldn’t be able to complain because – as Putin has repeatedly declared – there aren’t any Russian forces in Ukraine.