The body count for Russians dead in the UK is fast approaching action movie levels. Exiles in fear for their lives are dying in murky circumstances, while Russian state TV makes macabre jokes about the life expectancy of traitors.
While some of the Kremlin’s alleged agents have been clumsy, none have yet been caught, the duplicity with which Russia has handled the Skripal episode should come as no surprise. Russia itself is a country where nothing is as it appears.
From the implacable face of its leader, to its fascination with nuclear submarines, Russia loves to hide untold menace at an unknown depth, underneath a placid exterior.
In an infamous chess match in 1974, grandmasters Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian and Viktor Korchnoi supposedly compelled adjudicators to install a wooden sheet underneath the board. The story goes that beneath the table, rules and decorum went out the window and the two spent the match kicking each other viciously.
This is how Putin plays politics. Manners and niceties up top, and a true dark side down below where the normal rules simply don’t apply. The most surreal aspect of the Kremlin’s strategy is their pantomime outrage – ‘who, us?’ If Russian government officials were wounded as easily as their pride, they’d all be dead.
In moving quickly to unite Europe against Russia’s actions, the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have managed to turn the tables and send Putin a clear signal from a position of strength. This episode may actually result in a net gain in the UK’s international standing. However, Theresa and the rest of the EU may find themselves in a situation where this happens again and there are yet more murders – at which point: what’s to be done?
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This week May unveiled the “Fusion Doctrine”, which sounds like the new James Bond movie but which will more likely involve a lot of tech analysts and something called ‘hashtag smothering’. That is impressive sounding, but hardly likely to have Putin fleeing to his Dacha. This just after Russia unveiled a nerve toxin that undoubtedly could have featured in a James Bond movie – albeit a certificate 18 one.
Russia’s resentment and scorn towards the UK is likely to have grown as a result of this exchange – partly because May spearheaded a successful and unified response, harming Russian prestige – and partly because the UK used diplomacy to make a dignified point about unwanted aggression. For in Russia, diplomacy is merely the veneer. Underneath the surface, menace rule supreme.
The road ahead remains unclear; the West’s relationship with Russia promises to be anything but straightforward. But the further we push them away on the chessboard, the more I fear they will resort to kicking us under the table.