By Paul Goble
Many Russian officials have insisted that it is a mistake to draw parallels between the Litvinenko case where a former Russian citizen was murdered with polonium and the Skripal case where another former Russian citizen is now near death as a result of a chemical attack.
Moscow does not want the parallels to be drawn because the British government and courts have documented Moscow’s direct involvement in the Litvinenko case; and to admit the existence of parallels makes it easier for those who are convinced that the Kremlin is behind the attack on Skripal to gain acceptance for their charges.
That Moscow was involved in both cases is beyond question, but as Moscow commentator Ilya Milshteyn points out today, there is one important difference between the two, a difference that has extremely frightening implications for Russian behavior in the future (graniru.org/opinion/milshtein/m.268278.html).
The difference is this: in the Litvinenko case, Moscow sought to hide what it had done and the English discovered the polonium its agents used “almost by accident.” But in the Skripal case, Moscow acted more boldly. While it continues to deny the obvious, it is clear that it expected and even wanted to be exposed as the author of this crime.
The murder of Litvinenko, the author of The FSB Blows Up Russia, was like the bombings of the apartment houses in 1999: everything pointed in one direction, but it was circumstantial rather than definitive; and thus his death became as it were “part of the psychological war of Russia and the West and its own compatriots.
But the special operation carried out against Skripal “has different goals.” That is why everything was done so that the evidence would lead back to Russia, and the target of the operation was someone who had not engaged in any public political activity or direct attacks on Putin. This was far more cold-blooded and calculated, Milshteyn suggests.
According to Milshteyn, the Kremlin’s latest murderous attack had both foreign and domestic goals. “It is not excluded,” he says, that Moscow wanted to test the personality of the British prime minister who had to be forced to pursue the Litvinenko case but now is prepared to be more forceful, something that in this case fits in with the Kremlin’s plans.
That may seem counter-intuitive, he implies, but it makes perfect sense. Russia is going to be caught up in a long struggle with the West that will condemn it to failure just as something similar condemned the Soviet Union. “The economy will stagnate, prices rise, people and money go abroad, and sanctions and counter-sanctions will destroy what’s left of the market.”
And then Milshteyn gets to the heart of the matter: “Life in a besieged fortress,” he says, “is filled with enthusiasm when the enemy it shooting at it. But a fortress which everyone has forgotten about … is a sad spectacle.” To ensure that attacks keep coming, the master of that fortress must continue to launch attacks of various kinds in order to get a reaction.
These attacks may take radical forms like video game presentations on the destruction of the enemy or challenging NATO airspace, and “an attack on a former GRU officer and his daughter are of the same kind.” Taking steps like that guarantees a response and the response is something the Kremlin ruler can make use of to defend his “besieged fortress.”
“Without waiting for the results of the voting, [Putin] already is hurrying to show his plans for the next six years,” Milshteyn says. He wants to orchestrate “a permanent Caribbean crisis” and he thinks that the West will ultimately fold “out of fear of a nuclear war and because for the reason just outlined above, this game doesn’t offer many prospects for Putin’s Russia.”
But it is the only game Putin can play without losing face and without losing his ability to keep the Russian population mobilized, and consequently, what has happened in Salisbury will happen again in one form or another as long as the Kremlin leader is in office, a pattern that makes the world a far more dangerous place.
Moscow will continue to deny what it is doing because that will confuse some, but it will continue to act and thus send messages intended to intimidate first the West and then the Russian people. One piece of evidence for this comes not from Milshteyn’s thoughtful essay but rather from another article published on the same day.
The Politikus portal publishes a roundup of the latest Russian denials of involvement with the Skripal case but makes it clear what is really going on by illustrating its story with a picture of a 1982 classified Soviet volume on the destruction of the United Kingdom in a nuclear war (politikus.ru/v-rossii/105502-mid-rf-vyrazil-reshitelnyy-protest-velikobritanii-iz-za-ogulnyh-obvineniy.html).