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.
Cynical Kremlin propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov on his tv show Weekly News on the Skripal case: London as a 'Gibloye mesto' (Deathly place)
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.
The last Action Hero
On Sunday, Russia holds presidential elections that will see Putin re-elected, of course, but perhaps not with the kind of enthusiasm for which the Kremlin’s political technologists were hoping. Walking round Moscow, I am struck by the sheer density of posters exhorting Russians to vote – 'Our country, our president, our choice', 'Our future, our choice' – on billboards and video displays, in posters in schools and apartment block stairwells, even on receipts and car windows. Much of the manoeuvring beforehand, from setting up Ksenia Sobchak as a tame liberal candidate to split Navalny’s supporters, to elevating and then damning Communist millionaire-comrade candidate Pavel Grudinin, has been to create at least the semblance of a real election and hopefully a degree of public enthusiasm.
Part of the problem is knowing what Putin can offer. 'He saved us from the anarchy of the 1990s' – which was never the whole truth – was powerful in the 2000s but those miserable Yeltsin years are receding into history. 'He got us Crimea back' still has resonance, but even its appeal is diminishing. Besides, as voters see money being poured into massive projects such as the Kerch Bridge connecting the peninsula with the Russian mainland, the extent to which this is a national triumph but also a financial burden becomes increasingly clear.
His recent State of the Federation address exemplifies the challenges he faces. The first two thirds of the speech was full of promises that may have seemed appealing, from a pledge to increase GDP by 50% to promises of bringing broadband to the countryside, but they have been heard many, many times before. Putin is no more likely to deliver on them this time than before, and, at least on some level, Russians know this. The economy is in reasonable state but growth is sluggish, diversification halted, and the wealth gap gaping.
Instead, it was the last third of the speech where Putin came alive and attention has been focused, as he dwelt in loving detail on a range of new strategic weapons systems, from nuclear-powered cruise missiles, to lasers. While notionally meant to be reassuring, to let Russians know they were still protected by a powerful and modernised deterrent, it was also implicitly quite the opposite. Why does one need such a strong force unless there is a need for it? Increasingly, Putin is resting his legitimacy on his role not just as 'regatherer of the Russian lands', nor even the 'great provider', but the 'defender of the nation'.
In the Kremlin’s narrative, Russia is a beleaguered fortress, surrounded by subtle and cynical enemies determined to belittle, isolate, humble and homogenise it, a political and civilizational gibridnaya voina (hybrid war) that in turn means the nation needs a tough, experienced president. One like a certain Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
It is questionable whether, as some have suggested, the attempted assassination was triggered and timed specifically to manufacture an international incident for domestic political gain. That seems a rather expensive choice. Frankly, Russian state media can manufacture pseudo-crises on demand, without the tedious need for evidence or truth. However, the Kremlin is a keen believer of the old maxim 'never let a crisis go to waste'. This incident, and the British response, has gleefully been seized on to generate the appearance of 'perfidious Albion' – perennially framed as the USA’s less powerful but more sneaky little brother – committed to spreading malicious lies about poor, maligned Russia.
Thus, the Kremlin’s domestic narrative requires just the right level of international disharmony. Too much and Russia’s vital interests might be at risk, but too little and Putin’s claims to be indispensable because of his role as the last bogatyr or mythic hero, protector of the nation, become less compelling. It is no doubt coincidence that several of the blockbuster Russian films of 2017, from The Last Bogatyr to Legend of Kolovrat, were precisely about such legendary one-man-armies fighting off monsters and Mongols alike.
Dark power and the 'Will Gap'
Internationally, though, Russia has at once denied any role in the Skripal hit and yet doing so with a knowing smirk. On Channel One, for example, a presenter said that 'I don’t wish death on anyone, but for purely educational purposes, I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career' as a British spy, and that the UK was a dangerous place: 'Maybe it's the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with grave outcomes there. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows in industrial quantities'. This kind of arch denial-with-a-twist appears to embody two central elements of Moscow’s approach to the world.
The Kremlin’s working assumption is that while the West has more capacity, it lacks the will to use it to the fullest. Russia, by contrast, has the will, and can thus do more with less, so long as it retains the initiative and the psychological advantage. Thus, it has in many ways adopted the so-called 'Chicago rules': 'He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue'. The aim is to promise disproportionate retribution, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, with the hope of deterring less resolute interlocutors. When there was talk of the UK banning the RT propaganda TV station, for instance, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman and human pitbull Maria Zakharova reflexively escalated, threatening that 'not a single British media outlet will be working in our country if they shut RT down'.
The depressing truth is that once again, this may have worked. Theresa May’s package of responses to the Skripal case were not insignificant, but nor were they dramatic or truly punishing. While it is possible that much more is being done behind the scenes, or that further measures will follow, for the moment the Kremlin is likely quietly satisfied with the outcome. One could, for example, only guess quite how it would have responded had, say, Georgia carried out a brazen assassination in Omsk.
This is part and parcel of a wider strategy of developing and deploying what I am calling 'dark power', the shadowy counterpart to 'soft power'. If soft power is the ability of a state to gets its way by attraction and positive example, then dark power is the capacity to bully. It is as if Putin has come to terms with the fact that Russia is unlikely to make any real friends – even allies such as Iran, Belarus and Syria are essentially pragmatic partners up to a point – without totally revising its approach and foreign policy goals, then instead it should make a virtue of necessity. If you are going to be a bully, then be a fearsome and formidable one. That way, rivals are deterred from challenging you, and are inclined to pacify you with deals and exemptions.
In the long term, dark power is dangerous and self-destructive, but in the short term, it seems to work. Invading Ukraine (and before that, Georgia) and meddling in Western politics. Trying to dictate who can and cannot join foreign security alliances. Ramping up its intelligence operations and even murdering its enemies abroad. On the surface, Russia seems to a large extent to be getting away with behaviours antithetical to the world order, thanks to its dark power.
Someday, it will overreach. Someday, the costs of this adventurism will become obvious. For the moment, though, the Skripal case seems to epitomise the Kremlin’s foreign policy stance, a determination to demonstrate that there is not a missile gap, but a 'will gap', which it is willing to exploit to the fullest.