Today, even fiction writers can’t keep up with the unfolding chronicle of breaking surprises coming out of the real world of politics — the latest, strangest episode being the attempted murder in a peaceful English town of an ex-double agent from Russia and his visiting Russian daughter.
We know how it was done — with a military-grade nerve agent. Its Soviet-era provenance has led to the Western conclusion that it is “highly likely Russia is responsible.”
The Kremlin denies responsibility with bravado, imaginative alternative theories implicating the British themselves, sneering sarcasm and wounded indignation — a staple Russian attitude for decades, morphing in recent years into outright hostility.
U.S. hawks view Vladimir Putin as a “KGB thug” and accuse him (without evidence) of cold-blooded murders of political and journalistic adversaries. They have no problem believing he ordered the murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
But why? Skripal was a convicted traitor pardoned (by current Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev) to permit a spy swap largely to Russian advantage, repatriating from U.S. custody 10 deep sleeper agents. Skripal’s life in the U.K. was quiet and non-threatening.
Putin loves to rattle the West, but he is anything but reckless. With the World Cup coming to Russia this summer, such an aggressive act would have risked a lot.
Perhaps he has been carried away by a fever of self-confidence. He has been electorally rewarded for having restored Russian pride, after presiding over an oil-driven economic recovery from the chaotic 1990s when Russians threw off the old communist order without knowing how to build a new democratic one.
But he actually doesn’t get democracy at all. Though he pledged to safeguard it when he took office in 2000, he soon cut back Russia’s barely tasted democratic liberties.
Most Russians were OK with that, willing to “settle down” in return for security and predictability.
Others, notably professional and younger urban Russians, grew tired of being treated as political infants. Mass protests in 2012 in Moscow and St. Petersburg, against a clumsily doctored parliamentary election and Putin’s return to the presidency, scared the Russian leader, who abhors revolution.
He believes the U.S. orchestrated recent demonstrations that called for “Russia without Putin” and those that ousted Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in 2014. Popular uprisings elsewhere purporting to be pro-democracy and anti-corruption were to him attempts by a too-confident U.S. to engineer “regime change,” in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and eventually Syria.
He opted for payback by playing the disruption game himself, deploying Russian cyber-sophistication into pernicious and exploitable social-media chains in Western societies he judged weakened by populist nationalism.
He sought to disrupt and discredit Western politics if he could, but above all to undermine unity in the EU and NATO he saw trying to expand up to the Russian border. He isn’t about regaining Soviet territory (except for Crimea, an orphan of the U.S.S.R.’s breakup). He wanted to underline Russia’s return to significance.
Russians ate it up. Standing up to now-unpopular America is the easiest political tactic in Russia today, adding to Putin’s popularity.
The idea that the West can despise Putin but retain affection for the Russian people is to miss that they are largely one and the same, at least for now.
So, Western countries expelled 150 Russian “diplomats” considered spies, partially to support the most embattled leader among them, Britain’s Theresa May, but primarily to curtail Russian trouble-making in their own societies by rolling up Russia’s “spy” networks. They were fed up with covert and open support from Russia for divisive, illiberal, populist nationalist movements opposing democratically elected governments.
Russia has since announced 150 counter-expulsions.
But why Russia would ignite a storm with dire unintended consequences. Incompetence? Lack of controls? Dangerous overconfidence? Western voices urge even tougher measures to make Putin hurt.
If ever a situation called for diplomacy, this is it.
Effective “diplomacy” does not mean ducking confronting facts in order to appease an adversary. It means deploying them in private to detoxify a crisis.
Once it is communicated that Putin cannot continue as he has without real damage to Russia’s interests, there needs to be agreement for new rules and a roadmap for going forward, bearing in mind new technologies have new vulnerabilities to novel attacks.
And, with this in mind, who is “the diplomat” to do it? U.S. President Donald Trump said he didn’t raise the chemical attack when he called Putin March 20 to “congratulate” him for his staged election because he wanted to preserve a constructive relationship between leaders at the top. He was assailed in the U.S. media. (Trump’s approach to Putin is similar to Justin Trudeau’s avoidance of criticizing Trump, in that case because of NAFTA.)
Trump’s overture to Putin in that phone call to meet him at a face-to-face summit, perhaps at the White House, shows he’s keen to be the key Western player. But he’s too conflicted with the Robert Mueller inquiry and the U.S. hysteria over Russia’s interference in the election. U.S. allies by now have scant confidence in Trump’s willingness and ability to stick to an agreed line.
Someone else has to be the one. Not Germany’s Angela Merkel, who dislikes Putin.
The Canadian G7 chair has set its priorities as being entirely behind Ukraine at the expense of relations with Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron relishes tackling intractable problems; he is probably the candidate with the most stature at this time.
At any rate, though the Salisbury aggression might remain unsolved, it must never be repeated. “Don’t even think about it” has to be a convincing message.
The expulsions showed some necessary teeth. We need now an effort to reach some hard and fast understandings, if we are to halt today’s ominous and dangerous spiral into the unknown.
Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, high commissioner to the U.K., and ambassador to Italy and the EU. He lives in Victoria.