The nerve agent attack on British soil is a classical who-dunnit from a Cold War spy novel. More interesting than the murky details is the context. According to security expert Mark Galeotti, currently in Moscow, it is part and parcel of Russia's policy of 'dark power'. If you can't be attractive with soft power, and are vulnerable, you better be a fearsome bully. The West is weak and lacks the will to respond. 'In the long term, dark power is dangerous and self-destructive, but in the short term, it seems to work.' Russia is getting away with it.

kiseljov over skripalCynical Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov on his tv show Weekly News on the Skripal case: London as a 'Gibloye mesto' (Deathly place)

by Mark Galeotti

There is, to be frank, little that makes sense in the case of the Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal, hospitalised by a nerve agent along with his daughter and a police officer who came to his aid, in the leafy British cathedral city of Salisbury. However unlikely it would be that Moscow sought to kill him, every other solution, from rogue agents to, even more bizarrely, a British 'false flag' provocation, is even less plausible. However, the Russian response – bullying braggadocio, threats, sarcasm, all underpinned by a sly wink and a hint that a traitor 'got what he deserved' – does make sense in terms of both domestic and international political narratives.

One would hardly expect the Russians to hang their head in shame and admit they had tried to murder a pardoned ex-spy with a Soviet-era nerve agent, on foreign soil. Their usual playbook of responses is loud claims, however hollow, of complete innocence, along with allegations of Russophobic plots and threats of retaliation. We saw this with the MH17 shoot-down by Moscow-backed rebels using a Moscow-supplied missile. Indeed, we saw this during the seizure of Crimea and then in the destabilisation of the Donbass.

To an extent, one could ask what else they could do? Silence would rightly be read as implicit confession, and by moving onto the offensive, there is always a chance they can dismay and deter the faint-hearted and encourage and empower those inclined to disbelieve their own governments and trust Moscow, whatever the case. This also helps explain the stream of alternative explanations, which could most charitably be described as imaginative, blasted out by the Russian state media and its handmaidens.

But this is more than just a reflex piece of crisis management. It also tells us much about the narratives on which the Kremlin relies at home and abroad.