By Paul Goble
The Skripal case shows that Vladimir Putin, whether he is dealing with former spies, his own enemies, or Western governments, is now playing “a game without rules,” an approach that reflects the underlying weakness of his position but that makes it difficult for others to know what to anticipate or how to respond, Yury Felshtinsky says.
In the case of the former British spy, Putin has violated all the norms of the spy game as it has come to be played: he has exchanged a Russian subject for Russian spies, apparently because he had not choice and wanted to get Anna Chapman and the other Russian “sleeper” agents in the US so desperately, the US based Russian historian says.
And the Kremlin leader used poison to attack Skripal even though poisoning by its very nature invites continuing investigations about what kind it is, where it comes from and who was behind it even many years after the attack, thus potentially harming the interests of those who employ it (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5AA56998848E7).
Just as with Litvinenko, Felshtinsky continues, the Skripal case will invite continuing investigations even when the conclusions are obvious. Putin will simply laugh at those who make charges. And many may forget that both Skripal’s wife and his son were killed earlier, certainly on the orders of the Kremlin. Now Skripal and his daughter are at risk.
Putin has poisoned many people in Britain, but his failure to live by the rules is far from limited to that, the historian says because “unfortunately, after the death of Litvinenko, the only conclusion which the Russian government drew is that punishment will not follow such crimes” and that Moscow need not worry about Western public opinion.
“After all these deaths, after the invasion of Georgia in 2008, after the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014, after interference in the elections of a number of European countries and in t eh 2016 American elections, after Putin’s last foreign policy speech where he boldly and directly threatened the world with atomic war, the Kremlin shows that it spits on the opinion of the rest of the world,” confident nothing serous will happen to it.
The Soviet state when it could sought to eliminate all those who worked against it especially if they fled abroad, but, Felshtinsky points out, Putin has added a new and mafia-like dimension to this: he has sought to kill all the members of the family of those who he views as his enemies.
There is, of course, one precedent for this: Stalin killed the members of Trotsky’s family before he had his political rival eliminated.
Perhaps, the historian continues, the removal of Skripal represents only “a threat to all those Russian citizens who were involved in the long and complex operation of the FSB in interfering in the American elections which led to Donald Trump’s victory.” Don’t talk or else, they are being told, and not just you but members of your family.
But even if that is the case, Putin has not so much changed the rules as abolished them in this area as in others, Felshtinsky concludes.
There may be a method to Putin’s madness, others are suggesting. In an essay for the Republic portal, Moscow commentator Vladimir Frolov argues that what this is all about is a desire by Putin to get Washington to negotiate, that it is all about “talks instead of rules of the game” because such contacts would elevate his status (republic.ru/posts/89924).
If so, then Putin is more like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un than anyone would like to believe.