By Paul Goble
At first glance, Vladimir Pastukhov says, Moscow’s approach to the Skripal scandal appears “irrational and inadequate, in fact, the Kremlin is acting precisely according to ‘a protocol’ developed earlier” following the political murders of Politkovskaya, Nemtsov, Magnitsky and Litvinenko.
And precisely because it has refined its approach over time, the UK-based Russian historian argues, the Russian leadership is better positioned to win out against those who treat each new crime as sui generis rather than part and parcel of a larger strategy (republic.ru/posts/90376).
“If one considers the response of Russia to each of these events not in isolation but taken together,” Pastukhov says, “then it is possible to make up a system consisting of several fundamental elements” that have not changed very much either in substance or in order of application from one case to the next.
First of all, “whatever happens, Moscow begins with a declaration about the Kremlin’s lack of motive to commit a political murder.” It insists that those who were killed were no threat and therefore not targets. But in reality “in each of these cases, the Kremlin had motives to commit the crime from revenge or in order to conceal the traces of another crime.”
This Kremlin tactic works because normal people “cannot imagine that a civilized country which at one time aspired to the role of a superpower could conduct itself in such a barbarous fashion.”
Then, Pastukhov continues, because it often happens that these political murders happen at “the most unsuitable moment for the Kremlin” such as before the Olympics or the World Cup, the Kremlin insists that the Russians have no interest in committing such a crime because “we are not mad.”
Indeed, Kremlin propagandists are the first to point out all the reasons Moscow would have not to kill this or that individual at this or that time. But “Moscow does not have any real restraining counter-motives.” The pragmatists in the Kremlin “who understand perfectly that as a result of one Skripal or even ten of them no one is going to begin a nuclear war against Russia.”
Sanctions and especially personal ones against businessmen the Kremlin can live with because those Western actions will force these people to repatriate their money and allow the regime to “milk” them for its own purposes, the historian continues.
Third, “Moscow knows that it is extremely difficult for Western democracies to remain at a state of mobilized readiness. Time cures any problem, and therefore, dragging out a conflict at any price” even at the cost of embarrassment “is the most important technology” because “a lie repeated often enough has a chance to become a legend.”
Moreover, Pastukhov says, “after emotions cool, the allies of Russia in the Western establishment (and there are many of them) will find it easier to apply the brakes,” especially since what the Kremlin invariably seeks is not a complete return to the status quo ante but moderation in any punishment.
Fourth, in every case, he continues, the Kremlin will “imitate hysterics” primarily to consolidate its domestic audience. The vulgar remarks of foreign ministry spokesperson Mariya Zakharova are addressed more to those Russians who read her blog on Ekho Moskvy than to foreign diplomats in Moscow who may report what she says to their governments.
Fifth, the Russian side in every case “without exception” prepares “alternative versions” of the crime in order to confuse the situation and provide its backers with ammunition against others. When the murder is within Russia’s jurisdiction, Moscow can even orchestrate a court case based on these alternative versions and ensure convictions.
Sixth, Moscow invariably seeks access to the investigations of other governments even though it is a suspect. That not only allows it to offer a version of events which is more plausible than it could if it did not know what the police do but also to present itself as a searcher after truth rather than a suspect.
And seventh, Pastukhov continues, to achieve all these ends, it engages in provocative actions that would seem to be self-revelatory but in fact often prove to be a form of self-defense by distracting attention from what is really going on or confusing others about Moscow’s real intentions and role.
All these things are in fact a reflection of what is a war of nerves between the British government in the case of the Skripal case and the Russian authorities. If London understands what Moscow is doing – and Pastukhov implies that it understands more than some other capitals – then Moscow may have to blink first.
But the Russians have learned that they can ride out almost any crime no matter how heinous or how obvious their guilt, the historian says; and that knowledge almost certainly means there will be more such crimes and most such applications of this “protocol” after them in the future.