For Putin’s Russia, a poisoned spy sends a political message

For Putin’s Russia, a poisoned spy sends a political message

Among those who knew Sergei Skripal in the quiet English city of Salisbury, few seem to have been aware of his background as a spy and British-Russian double agent. That past seems to have caught up with him. Skripal and daughter Yulia were poisoned by what British authorities say was a sophisticated nerve agent; they are now hospitalized in critical condition.

Britain’s Times newspaper reported Thursday that Britain’s MI5 believed Moscow was behind the poisoning. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has denied the charges.

However, the difficulty of manufacturing the chemicals makes them practically the calling card of a government-sponsored assassin. And that may be part of the point – to remind foes no one is safe no matter how far or long they run. That opinion is increasingly shared by experts on Russia, who see the poisoning as a sign of just how committed Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has become to eradicating its enemies – and reminding others it can do so.

If Moscow was behind the attack, its timing ahead of Russia’s presidential election is significant. Putin is almost certain to win the March 18 vote, but he is sending a message with his increasingly bellicose rhetoric aimed at the West as well as domestic protesters.

Earlier this month, he announced Russia had developed an array of sophisticated new nuclear weapons. That speech, along with signs pointing to Russian involvement in the Skripal attack, offers another stark reminder of just how antagonistic Russia is becoming to the West – and how willing it is to tear up the conventional and military rulebook.

Like Russia’s recent nuclear posturing, threats to nearby states and wider political interference, the intention seems to be to make it difficult for Western countries to respond. The most likely path will be further economic sanctions, but while that will inflict some economic hardship on those at the top, it simply serves to deepen the very divisions between Moscow and the West that Putin uses as domestic political currency.

Any state body using a nerve agent so blatantly is clearly disregarding the traditional rules of international order, as well as the welfare of others in the vicinity.

Getting to the bottom of what happened is difficult in the extreme – and it might be simplistic to suggest Putin ordered all of the killings.

Foreign experts who watch Russian intelligence agencies and criminal networks closely say they are often closely intertwined. Prague-based security analyst Mark Galeotti warned this week previous informal rules that had governed espionage – and largely limited killings – were breaking down.

Russia’s domestically focused Federal Security Bureau, primary successor to the KGB, was increasingly active outside its borders, said Galeotti. Other agencies were also increasingly willing to take risks. “We have seen Chechens gunned down in Turkey and Austria,” he wrote. “We have seen an Estonian security officer kidnapped from his own country.”

By coincidence or not, this week marks the 65th anniversary of Josef Stalin’s death. Putin is hardly in the same league when it comes to brutality and oppression. But as Russia’s latest strongman enters his late 60s and Russia begins to ponder who might follow him, he seems equally desperate to be feared.

*This abrigded article is taken from Reuters

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