Vladimir Putin is either very stupid or very clever.
Yes, I’m talking about the Russian affair again. No, not that one, the other one – try to keep track.
A nerve agent easily traceable to a Russian laboratory was used Salisbury, England to try to murder a Russian defector to the UK. The Russian apologists, hearing hooves, immediately cried zebras. Why would they use something so obvious? Somebody must be setting the Russians up.
Not quite. The KGB and its successors have a long history of committing spectacular murders of people they regard as traitors. Yes, they want to kill them, but they want to do so in a way that, even when they deny it, everyone knows that it was them, particularly anyone in their own ranks who was thinking of changing sides. It serves as a warning.
I should say they’re not the only ones to use this tactic. Gareth Williams, a young British spy was found dead in August 2010 in his bath, inside a holdall bag, that was padlocked closed from the outside. He was naked, but there were no fingerprints on the bag or the lock or the bath. There was no evident cause of death. Two experts tried 400 times to lock themselves into a bag in the same way, but failed. British police, in cooperation with MI6, concluded that Williams probably locked himself in accidentally.
But this wasn’t purely internal for the Russians. Sergei Skripal lived in the UK because he was swapped for Russian spies caught in the west. Going after him violated the rules that spy agencies normally stick to – he wasn’t theirs to kill.
The British have been investigating furiously, in every sense, and they were helped by the fact that the UK is the most highly videoed nation on earth. One fifth of all surveillance cameras on earth are in the UK, there’s one for about ever ten Brits, so it wasn’t too hard for them to find a pair of suspicious-looking Russians, who arrived in London from Moscow, took the 90 minute train journey to Salisbury, scouted out Skripal’s house, and then returned to their London hotel. They then made the same journey the next day, and within hours Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found poisoned with novichok.
The Russians were on their way back to London, where they took one of the two sets of flights that they had booked, leaving their luggage behind.
So far, so Cold War. The British were able to find traces of novichok in the London hotel room they used, so there’s really no doubt. The British published high-quality photos of the two Russians, who used the names Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov. You might have expected the Russian government and its mouthpieces like RT and Sputnik to be skeptical in general, without giving specifics.
But after Putin said in public, in response to a set-up question, that they had been found, they turned up in a bizarre interview with RT, claiming that these were their real names. A whole series of lies were exposed from the interview, not least that they went to see Salisbury Cathedral – timings on their CCTV sightings make that impossible. It’s also very clear that these are not their real names, and that their passports were issued by the secret services. All Russians over 14 must have what they call an internal passport, it’s impossible to do many things without this document, even things as simple as get on a train, but these guys’ identities don’t go back any further than 2009.
So why go to the stupid risk of giving a TV interview, even if it was with a journalist from a totally compliant channel?
Well, firstly, these guys are clearly no good as undercover spies anymore. Secondly, Kremlin mouthpieces like RT, and Putin himself, have barely been able to keep a straight face when they deny involvement in the poisoning. It took only hours for people to come up with a whole list of contradictions in their claims.
But, as I said, there are unwritten rules in the spy business; it’s a bit like a mafia code. Murdering anyone on foreign soil is not playing by those rules. Murdering people in a spectacular way, all the more so, and particularly trying to murder a spy that you have already swapped.
This interview did not go ahead without Putin’s authorization. He’s upsetting a pretty settled international order. If he gets away with it, that’s impressive. But, if he won’t play by the rules, he can hardly expect western intelligence agencies to do so either. That disruption could be to his cost.
As I said, he is either being really stupid or really clever.