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30 Minutes in Salisbury

Salisbury is a nice old English town with a fine cathedral, only an hour and a half from London by train, but it doesn’t see many Russian tourists in wintertime. It’s not as cold as Moscow, but Russians tend to prefer Mediterranean destinations for holiday breaks in early March – unless, of course, they are planning to kill somebody.

The person of interest in Salisbury was Sergei Skripal, a former member of the Russian military intelligence service who started selling information to the British in the mid-1990s and was caught and jailed by the Russians in 2004. He was pardoned and allowed to go to Britain as part of a spy swap between Western countries and Russia in 2010, and he settled in Salisbury.

On 4 March of this year, Skripal and his daughter, who was visiting from Moscow, were found semi-conscious on a bench in the street in Salisbury and taken to a hospital. They spend weeks in intensive care, and it was determined that they had been poisoned by novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent that falls into the category of banned chemical weapons.

A policeman who went to Skripal’s house was also struck down by the poison, which had been sprayed on the handle of the front door, but he also recovered eventually. Three months later a Nina Ricci perfume bottle that contained leftover novichok was found in a charity bin in Salisbury, and a woman who sprayed it on her wrists died.

Britain accused Russia of sending assassins to kill Skripal and of using a banned weapon. It had no hard proof beyond the novichok, but Skripal was still helping Western intelligence agencies to understand Russian training and techniques, so Moscow had a motive.

Many people pointed out that it would have been foolish for Moscow to choose such a complicated method and risk exposure. Why didn’t it just hire a non-Russian hitman to do the job? But Moscow has done this sort of thing before: Russian agents, exotic substances, the lot.

Alexander Litvinenko, a member of the FSB secret service, got into trouble after his investigation into links between Russian mafia groups and his own organisation made him unpopular with Vladimir Putin, the FSB’s head. Litvinenko fled Russia for Britain after Putin took over the presidency in 2000.

Litvinenko remained a harsh critic of Putin, and in 2006 Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, both former FSB agents, were sent to London to kill him. CCTV images showed the killers with Litvinenko at a London hotel where they dosed his tea with a tiny amount of polonium-210, a highly toxic radioactive substance that would not normally be spotted because it does not emit gamma rays.

That was a reasonably competent operation, exposed only by bad luck. The 2018 operation was different. CCTV images, released only last week, showed Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, two 30-something Russian ‘fitness trainers’, making a brief trip to Salisbury on 3 March, presumably to do a reconnaissance, and back to the town on the 4th to do the dirty deed.

But then it got weird. Putin publicly urged the two men to go on TV, and last Thursday they appeared on RT, a Russian international news channel, to explain their brief trip (which gave them only 54 hours in England).

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said Petrov. They especially wanted to see Salisbury Cathedral, said Boshirov: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock….” But they looked like heavies from Central Casting, and not at all like clock-tower enthusiasts. ‘Nekulturny’ (uncultured), as the Russians say.

Why did they only spend 30 minutes in Salisbury the first time? “It was cold.” (It was 10 degrees C warmer than Moscow.) Why did they take another train down to Salisbury the next day? “We really wanted to see Old Sarum and the cathedral.” (Old Sarum is an Iron-Age hill fort near Salisbury that was closed on 4 March.)

And on 4 March one of the CCTV cameras picked them up close to Skripal’s house and far from the cathedral or any other tourist attractions.

Is Russia deliberately trolling the British government to show its contempt? Probably not, because it has tried very hard to distance itself from the crime in other international venues. Did Putin’s regime put those two highly implausible ‘tourists’ on RT because it forgot that different standards of truth prevail elsewhere? Maybe.

But the likeliest answer is that these clumsy and self-defeating actions are indicators of how far the rot in the regime has gone. Elements of the system, like the armed forces (which have performed well in Syria), retain their efficiency and discipline, but corruption and incompetence rule elsewhere.

The Salisbury debacle would not have happened eighteen years ago, when Putin’s reign was new. It suggests that the regime is a lot closer to its end than its beginning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“A policeman…motive”)

Murder in Moscow

“Every time I call (my mother),” said Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recently, “she gives me a talking-to: ‘When will you stop being rude about Putin? He’ll kill you.’”

Now Nemtsov is dead: four bullets in the back as he was walking home in Moscow with his girlfriend on Friday night. The protest march against Putin and the war in Ukraine that he was planning to lead on Sunday became a memorial march instead.

So, two questions. Did President Vladimir Putin order the assassination? And if he didn’t, then who did, and why?

The hit was carried out with professional skill only three minutes’ walk from Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, in an area that is infested day and night by militia (police) on constant alert to break up demonstrations. You could put together a feature-length film with the footage from the countless CCTV cameras that tracked Nemtsov’s walk across the square and down to the bridge where he died.

It took accurate intelligence to know where Nemtsov would be on Friday night, and serious organisation and planning to carry out the killing in such a heavily policed area. That points to members of the military or security forces, though not necessarily to ones who were acting on official orders. Because the first thing to say about this murder is that it did not serve Putin’s purposes.

No doubt the Russian president disliked and despised Nemtsov, but neither he nor any other opposition leader posed any threat to Putin’s power. Thanks in large part to his seizure of Crimea and his military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Putin is currently enjoying an 85 percent approval rating with the Russian public. Why risk upsetting this happy relationship with the first public killing of a senior political figure in more than a decade?

It’s much more likely that the killing was carried out by serving or former soldiers or intelligence officers who took it upon themselves to eliminate an “anti-patriotic” politician who condemned “Putin’s War” in Ukraine. In the superheated atmosphere of nationalist paranoia that currently prevails in Russia, such people could easily imagine that they were doing just what Putin secretly wanted.

Putin is too clever to want that, and immediately condemned the killing as “vile and cynical.” It was a curious choice of words: “vile”, of course, but why “cynical”? The reason became clear when various senior regime members began hinting that the murder was a “provocation” by the Western intelligence services or even by Nemtsov’s own opposition colleagues, killing him to stimulate dissent and bring the Russian state into disrepute.

This murder will have no permanent impact either on Russia’s internal politics or on its relations with the rest of the world. The paranoid style is now so deeply entrenched in Russian politics that people who support Putin (i.e. most people) will either believe the nonsense about Nemtsov’s murder being a “provocation”, or be privately glad that Putin acts so decisively (as they imagine) to protect Russia from its myriad enemies.

As for the rest of the world (or at least the “western” part of the world), it has already written Putin off as a man you can do business with. The Russian leader is, in many Westerners’ eyes, an expansionist warlord who can only be contained by sanctions and threats. It may even take a new Cold War to stop him. Paranoia, alas, is a communicable disease.

The Western narrative that seeks to explain how, in less than a year, we have arrived at a point where the United States is contemplating supplying heavy weapons to Ukraine to kill Russian troops, has several large gaps. The first is that the revolution on the Maidan in Kiev last winter overthrew a legitimately elected Ukrainian president only a year before the next elections were due.

Putin initially accepted that outcome (with the elections moved up to only one month in the future), which was brokered by the European Union. In other words, he accepted the illegal overthrow of the pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, so long as free elections followed rapidly. Quite possibly because he thought Yanukovych’s supporters in the east might boost him back into the presidency again.

That same thought may also be why the revolutionaries in Kiev broke the deal and insisted on Yanukovych’s immediate removal from power. It was only then that Putin concluded that he was faced with a Western plot to whisk Ukraine into NATO and create a strategic and political threat on Russia’s southern frontier.

There was no such plot: NATO has not the slightest desire to assume responsibility for the defence of Ukraine. But there was a great deal of open Western rejoicing at Russia’s discomfiture, and Putin lost his customary cool and responded with the annexation of Crimea and then the encouragement of pro-Russian rebels in southeastern Ukraine.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. “All great men are bad.” In that sense, Putin is a bad man, and more dangerous for being both paranoid and increasingly isolated. (His circle of advisers has dwindled to a handful of hawks.) But he is not planning to conquer even Ukraine, let alone the rest of the former Soviet empire, and he almost certainly did not order Nemtsov’s death.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Putin…enemies”)