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When States Kill

There can be no doubt who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March. The interesting question is why.

by Peter Rutland 15 March 2018

Russia is acting in defiance of international law and basic morality because it has convinced itself that it faces an existential threat – a threat that does not, in fact, exist.


It is possible – but unlikely – that the hit was carried out by Russian operatives without direct authorization from President Vladimir Putin. But that is irrelevant, since Putin has created a climate of xenophobia and paranoia in which such attacks are seen as necessary and legitimate.


This is chillingly depicted in a clip from 2010, in which Putin told a Rossia-24 TV audience “Traitors will kick the bucket. Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.” (It was replayed by BBC Newsnight on 5 March.) Putin was speaking in response to a question about the spy exchange in which Skripal and three other alleged spies were exchanged for 10 Russian agents captured in the United States.


Putin subsequently intensified the rhetoric of betrayal, talking about “a fifth-column of national traitors” in his speech on the annexation of Crimea on 18 March 2014 – language lifted from Stalinist times. He even moved the presidential election this year from May to 18 March to commemorate the Crimean annexation. The timing of the Salisbury attack may have been connected to the election: a “gift” for Putin on the eve of his inevitable victory.


The message sent by the attack is clear: traitors to Russia (and perhaps their families, too) can expect to face death. The most likely intended recipient of this message is Grigory Rodchenko, the former head of the Russian anti-doping agency who defected to the U.S. carrying evidence that proved the existence of a massive state-run doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. That was deeply humiliating for Putin, who had heavily invested in making the Games a success. Thanks to Rodchenko’s revelations, the Russian team was suspended from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The Games ended on 25 February: it is unlikely that Russia would have risked killing Skripal before that date, since up until the last minute they were hoping to be allowed to march as a team in the closing ceremony.


Rodchenko’s amazing story was documented in the film Icarus that won the Oscar for best documentary – on the same day that Skripal was attacked.


Russia has been in the business of assassinating political enemies at home and abroad for many years, as documented in Amy Knight’s recent book Orders to Kill. The Putin Regime and Political Murder. What is particularly shocking about the Skripal case is that he had been pardoned by President Dmitry Medvedev and exchanged for Russian spies. The attack violates the “rules of the game,” such as they are, which had developed during the Cold War. Why should any foreign power trust Russia to take part in any such exchange in the future?


This reinforces the impression that Russia is a revisionist power willing to disregard international law – already evidenced by the country’s annexation of Crimea and covert military support for rebels in Donbas.


How are we to understand why Putin is behaving in this reckless manner? The problem goes beyond simplistic explanations such as Putin seeking to bolster his waning domestic popularity.


As President Donald Trump has pointed out more than once, Russia is not the only state that kills people. Israel probably leads the field, as documented in a new book by Ronen Bergman, Rise Up and Kill First. The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.


Israel, of course, faces an imminent threat from nearby countries that are pledged to wipe it off the map. Russian leaders seem to have the same mindset: in the face of an existential threat, anything is justified to protect the Motherland.


For Israel, the explanation for its actions rests on the Holocaust. Similarly, Russians see World War II as justifying any self-defense actions that the Russian state takes – 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, including Putin’s brother. Russia repeatedly invoked World War II in justifying its intervention in Ukraine in 2014.


The problem is that while the threat to Israel is real, the threat to Russia is imaginary. No one wants to wipe the Russian Federation off the map. Yes, the United States welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was a multi-national empire with a millenarian ideology. But outside the late Zbigniew Brzezinski there are no serious U.S. figures who have been working to destroy Russia. U.S. nuclear forces are not structured for a pre-emptive strike on Russia.


U.S. actions to promote “color revolutions” in Russian allies and neighbors, from Yugoslavia in 2000 to Ukraine in 2014, were aimed at containing Russian influence, not destroying Russia. Somehow, that message needs to be communicated to Moscow. But it may not be a message that Moscow is able to hear.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

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