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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”)

No More Pootie-Poot

20 February 2005

No More Pootie-Poot

By Gwynne Dyer

President George W. Bush leaves the flourishing metropolis of Mainz on the evening of 23 February, after meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and flies to Bratislava for a dinner with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. (Mainz? Bratislava? Not Berlin and Moscow? Is Mr Bush avoiding European crowds?) The Russian and American presidents will doubtless maintain a polite facade, but it’s unlikely that Bush will emerge from this meeting to declare once again that “Pootie-Poot” is his soulmate.

The Russian-American relationship is not thriving, and the proof of it is the fact that the United States granted political asylum a month ago to Alyona Morozova, a Russian citizen who claims that her life is in danger because of her role in investigating a series of “terrorist” bombing attacks that killed 246 Russians in September 1999. The chief suspect in the bombings, according to her, is Vladimir Putin.

Three apartment blocks in Russian cities were destroyed by huge bombs that month, including one that left Alyona Morozova’s mother and boyfriend dead under the rubble. There had been peace between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya since 1996, and no Chechen claimed responsibility for the bombings, but then-prime minister Vladimir Putin immediately blamed the atrocities on the Chechens and launched a second war against them that continues to this day.

Boris Yeltsin was in the last year of his presidency then, and he was seeking a way to retire without facing prosecution for the fortunes he and his cronies had amassed in their years of power. Vladimir Putin, former head of the FSB secret police, had recently been appointed prime minister by Yeltsin but was still largely unknown to the Russian public.

The deal was that Yeltsin would pass the presidency to Putin at the end of the year, and Putin would then grant Yeltsin an amnesty for all crimes committed while he was in office. But there was still the tedious business of an election to get through, and Russians who scarcely knew Putin’s name had to be persuaded to vote for him on short notice. How to boost his profile as Saviour of the Nation? Well, a war, obviously.

Alyona Morozova (and many others) claim that Putin’s old friends at the FSB carried out the apartment bombings themselves, in order to give their man a pretext to declare war on Chechnya and make himself a national hero in time for the presidential elections. It would be just one more unfounded conspiracy theory — except that only days after the big Moscow bomb, a resident at a similar apartment building in the city of Ryazan spotted three people acting suspiciously and called the local police.

The police founds sacks in the cellar that they initially said contained hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings, together with a timer set for 5.30 am. They also discovered that the three people who had planted the explosives were actually FSB agents. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, insisted that the sacks contained only sugar and that the whole thing was a training exercise, and the local police fell silent, but there was no proper investigation.

Alyona Morozova fears the Russian government’s wrath because a number of other people who have tried to investigate the incident have been murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges of “espionage”. So she asked for political asylum in the United States: nothing surprising in that. It’s much more surprising that the US government actually granted her asylum, because it is implicitly acknowledging the possibility that President Vladimir Putin, in addition to being a mass murderer of Chechens, may also be a mass murderer of Russians.

You do not do this to countries you expect to be friends with. It may be the RIGHT thing to do, in moral terms, but that has not been a significant constraint on US policy towards trusted allies like Algeria, Egypt and Turkmenistan. Something else is going on here.

Just straws in the wind, but count them. Russia has refused to cut its support for Iran’s nuclear power projects despite all of Washington’s blandishments. Moscow is on the brink of a surface-to-air missile deal with Syria that would give that country the ability to challenge Israeli and even American overflights. The European Union is about to end its embargo on arms sales to China. The EU will go ahead with its Galileo satellite geo-positioning system, which can greatly improve missile accuracy, despite US protests that the existing American system (with fuzzed data for non-US military customers) is good enough for everybody. And it will sell the Galileo data to the Chinese.

There is a realignment going on, and it isn’t about ideology. If Russia were a fully democratic country, its foreign ministry would still be worried by US adventurism in the Middle East. If China were a democracy, it would probably be MORE active in opposing the American military presence in East Asia. And France and Germany, which are genuine democracies, increasingly see the US as a threat — not to them directly, but to global stability.

This change of attitude is not yet an accomplished fact, and a change of course in Washington could still abort the trend. But most of the world’s other major powers are starting to see the United States as a rogue state, and gradually they are responding to that perception. Nothing George W. Bush will say or do on this European trip is likely to change their minds.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Boris…obviously”)