Streetwise Professor

March 15, 2018

The Netherworld of the Russian Security State, Where Angels Fear to Tread

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:14 pm

Relations between Russia and the West–most particularly the UK, but the US, France, and Germany as well–are being roiled by the poisoning (using a nerve agent) of a former Russian double agent,Sergei Skripal, who had been exchanged for Russian spies in 2010.

So whodunnit?

I have no idea. And anyone who claims they know is full of it.  We have a very limited set of facts that can fit any number of competing–and indeed mutually exclusive–hypotheses.

Occam’s Razor says that an individual or individuals with connections to the Russian security services is responsible: who else would have access to a particularly nasty nerve agent developed under great secrecy and produced in large quantity in the USSR?*

Vladimir Putin certainly qualifies as an individual with connections to the Russian security services, and the reflexive reaction by many in the West has been to blame him personally.  However, although Putin is a member of the set of individuals with connections to the Russian security services, the set is not a singleton: there are thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of other members.  Some of these may not even be in the security services (e.g., mafia elements or an oligarch whom Skripal double crossed).

Like many in his profession, Skripal was a fundamentally dishonest man who could play both sides.  Men like that make many enemies.  His attempted murder could be very similar to Murder on the Orient Express, where the problem is not the lack of suspects, but a surfeit thereof.

My suspicion is that Skripal was far too minor a player, and one too far beyond his sell-by date, to warrant Putin’s personal attention.  But this cannot be ruled out.  Given the seismic consequences of such an act, the implications of Putin’s personal involvement would be ominous indeed.  He would be risking a superpower confrontation over a has-been: and for what? To gain a momentary burst of popularity to secure an electoral victory that was inevitable in any event?  A sort of burning of the boats, to bind Russians to him in opposition to the West?  To provoke a confrontation?

These are not inconceivable possibilities, but they seem so extreme–which is why that I am skeptical that Putin was involved directly.

The “Putin did it” claim that is so widely repeated is largely a reflection of the cartoon image of a Russia in which Putin is all knowing, all seeing, and all powerful, and where nothing in Russia, not even the fall of a sparrow, occurs but at his direction.

An alternative explanation is actually more plausible–and more frightening.  That there are elements with connections to the Russian security services who can carry out such an act without Putin’s permission.  The prospect of rogue elements operating in such a reckless way is truly sobering, especially since one predictable consequence is to create a confrontation between superpowers.

I have no doubt there are elements in Russia who want to provoke such a confrontation. Which is a reason to remember that however bad Putin is, his potential successor could be far worse.

The fundamental problem here is that Russia is so opaque, and there are so many scary types operating in the shadows, that it will be impossible to fix responsibility with any precision. We know Putin’s address, and his previous acts–real and imagined–make it emotionally satisfying to many to give him a knock. But we cannot know with any certainty–and we run the risk that even more ominous figures are counting on such a reaction in order to bring on a confrontational crisis.

The most likely outcome is an even greater estrangement between Russia and the West, and the potential return of a Cold War with a temperature approximating that in the 1950s.  Unless the perpetrators were mouth-breathing idiots similar to the criminals in Fargo, they would have known that this would be the result.  Tragically, the list of those who might have such an agenda is long indeed, and for all the hyperventilating, I don’t put Putin on the top of it.  It would actually be better if it was as simple as that.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.  And angels surely fear to tread in the netherworld of the Russian security services.

*It pains me to acknowledge that the credibility of Western security services, including notably MI6 and the CIA, has been so compromised as of late that the credibility of the claim that Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by Новичок is less than absolute.

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  1. What is your view on this Craig Murray piece?

    Comment by Rupiscissa — March 16, 2018 @ 5:21 am

  2. Craig Murray has zero credibility. And that’s without taking into account that he has been, in recent times, the resident of a mental institution.

    Comment by Recusant — March 16, 2018 @ 9:43 am

  3. @Rupiscissa–Even though my name is Craig, and my mother’s name was Murray, I have to put down Craig Murray as somewhat dubious. His credibility took a big hit when I read this: “the Americans would at the very least jail the person for life, and I strongly suspect would execute them.” Jail for life? Yes. Execute? Um, no. The Walkers, Whitworth, Hanssen, and Ames all were sentenced to life. John Walker died in prison, the rest are still rotting there.

    That Skripal was assisting Steele is plausible, but a hypothesis at best–one worth investigating though. The Israel conjecture is loony and also damages his credibility.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 16, 2018 @ 11:12 am

  4. As far as the Skripal incident is concerned, review the evidence and come to a conclusion, not the other way around. Russia knows uncannily how far to push. Nerve agent here, an annexation there, shoot down a civil airliner…play on the West’s guilt. Nailed it.

    It seems to lack a place in the world; it can never be a superpower but becoming a fully fledged democracy with market economy is way too difficult. Trying to revert to Soviet type seems a default response. I think the saying about the UK is actually more apt for Russia, ‘lost an empire but yet to find a place in the world.’ Too big to be small, too small to be big.

    Comment by Malkovich — March 16, 2018 @ 11:31 am

  5. For context Craig Murray was a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan before he was fired.

    Comment by Rupiscissa — March 16, 2018 @ 6:29 pm

  6. Russian rogue elements, dark forces, and worse successors.

    Does anyone calculate that Putin could be riding a tiger in Russia? That he does what he does because others there are a deadly threat to him?

    Comment by Pat Frank — March 16, 2018 @ 7:46 pm

  7. @Pat–I’ve said before that those who want Putin to go need to be careful what they ask for, because they might get it. I think there are far worse lurking in the shadows.

    The primary problem is the infantile tendency to personalize everything. The fundamental problem isn’t Putin’s specific personality. It is that his personality and behavior are well-adapted to Russian political culture and its society. The issue isn’t Putin per se. It is Russia, and it is a problem that long preceded Putin and which will long outlast him.

    But most in Western/American media and politics are too superficial to go beyond the person, and think that changing the person will change the system. Wrong. Putin is the product of the system, and any successor is likely to be as bad or worse. He is the result of a sort of political natural selection process. His passing, for whatever reason, will not change the logic of the process that produced him.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 16, 2018 @ 8:47 pm

  8. Professor, as far as I recall from things I have heard or read way back, all renegade KGB/FSB agents are killed as a matter of policy. Therefore I agree that, in all likelihood, this decision was not made at Putin’s level. It could’ve been the head of FSB or even ahead of some kind of special division there.

    Comment by MJ — March 16, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

  9. SWP:

    Have you seen Red Sparrow? Reviews have not been good, but Vlad & the Royal Estonian Princess enjoyed it.

    Your thoughts?

    VP VVP

    Comment by Vlad — March 17, 2018 @ 5:40 am

  10. As I understand it, Russia has a law that governs the execution of ‘traitors’ located outside the borders of RF. It was passed just before the execution of Litvinenko. Ruminating on the observations about the grotesque theatricality of the 1937 Terror in Grossman’s Everything Flows, there does seem to be an underlying continuity in the madness of what can only be described as Russian bureaucratic criminality. An execution requires an order which must be signed in triplicate by an official of a certain rank and stamped with the proper administrative stamp…
    Occam’s Razor is applicable I think when pondering the choice of weapon. Criminals use a garrote, or a gun or a bomb at a pinch. Why? Because they want to do it cheap and easy. Delivering death is a business like any other and one has to keep an eye on expenses….
    Getting hold of polonium or a sophisticated nerve agent is difficult and expensive. But using such weapons … well, one thinks of the semiotics of Colombian cartel killings (on which the Mexicans have elaborated after their own fashion). It rather resembles the 18th. century aristocratic fashion for creating tableaux. The medium is the message. So, applying Bayesian reasoning and Occam brings the preponderance of probabilities strongly down on the side of a State actor. And indeed Putin recently promised traitors would choke on their 30 pieces of silver (a phrase that earlier reared its ugly head in the Doctors Plot – against Zhdanov, Stalin … with its hints of anti-Semitism)

    What you’all should be doing is blaming Obama for the Skripal affair. After all, if he had had the courage of his convictions, he would have done something about the deployment of CW in the Syrian theater by Assad and his Russian sponsors. And then the Russians would have known that CW should remain firmly off the menu …

    Comment by Simple Simon — March 17, 2018 @ 10:18 am

  11. Very impressive analysis. I love how you invoke Occam’s razor only to go on to claim that nefarious elements within the Russian security services managed to smuggle a nerve agent out of Russia and into Britain without Putin’s authorization. And I guess since there are “scarier” elements within the Russian security services than even Putin himself, then the west should not retaliate against Russia, since that would only play into the hands of those scary elements, right? You’ve become too easy to scare, professor!

    Comment by aaa — March 17, 2018 @ 7:03 pm

  12. […] So yes, going around Russia bad-mouthing Putin will likely land you in a spot of trouble, but it won’t be the police or FSB who take an interest. And with a bit of common sense and politeness, you’d find that criticising Putin is permitted in Russia. Unbeknown to western commentators, Russians are not a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs who have swallowed Putin’s nationalistic tub-thumping wholesale (although they did like the snaffling of Crimea). They know what Putin is like, and probably wouldn’t mind a change, but the question is “who and what”? Streetwise Professor gets to the nub of the issue here: […]

    Pingback by Putin’s Appeal | White Sun of the Desert — March 20, 2018 @ 2:12 am

  13. The KGB has a motto, “never forgive, never forget”. Putin didn’t have to order the assassination; it’s just company policy.

    Comment by Juvenal — March 20, 2018 @ 6:12 am

  14. “Professor, as far as I recall from things I have heard or read way back, all renegade KGB/FSB agents are killed as a matter of policy.”

    Maybe so. However. This guy was part of a Russia/USA spy swap. So assassinating him moves the ball into uncharted territory. Why continue to trade spies if one side feels it can kill off its trades at a later date.

    Comment by Davod — March 20, 2018 @ 11:51 pm

  15. @Davod–it is also my understanding that the unwritten rule was that swapped spies are off limits.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — March 21, 2018 @ 7:16 pm

  16. @Davod I think there is a plausible explanation that swapped or not, the message is that if you “betray” the organization, sooner or later, one way or another, they get to you. No mercy.

    In this particular case, they were offered to get back someone who was valuable to them. They got this person back but still punished the renegade. Win-win in their own mind — the person of value is back and the renegade is punished, anyway.

    Comment by MJ — March 25, 2018 @ 8:27 am

  17. Wealthier Russians have expatriated nearly 200 billion dollars from Russia since sanctions were imposed by the EU and the USA after the shootdown of MH17 and annexation of Crimea. Russia’s government reserves were severely depleted with the drop in world energy prices since 2014.
    The more Putin stirs international waters and invites limp wristed retribution, the more likely it is that Russians will seek “safe” haven for their overseas assets – quite possibly repatriating liquid ones back to at least a familiar Russia as compared to an increasingly hostile West.
    Putin seems to have a short term, survive at all costs mentality. His actions in Ukraine don’t seem to make any long term geopolitical sense. Donbas and Crimea kept Ukraine de facto militarily neutral between the West and Russia. Ukraine is now firmly in the Western camp.
    The attempted assassination of Skripal with the collateral damge to his daughter might exactly be a burn the bridges and circle the wagons tactic.

    Comment by Andy Ess — April 4, 2018 @ 11:20 am

  18. @Andy Ess. I’ve thought about that. This could be a Putin “don’t throw me in that b’rer patch” moment. He would actually benefit from aggressive action by the west that leads rich Russians to pull out their money from the west and invest in Russia instead. I don’t know if that is an explicit goal of continually stoking conflict with the west (including perhaps involvement in the Skripal poisoning), or if it is merely a collateral benefit. But regardless, it means that going after rich Russians’ money in the west may be less of a punishment for Putin than a reward.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — April 4, 2018 @ 1:24 pm

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