The recent attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal has thrown up significant debate over the true perpetrators of the act. Many see it as a direct Kremlin attack, many as an attack by Skirpal’s personal enemies, and a significant minority cry false flag. Were it ordered by Putin, it is seemingly illogical, a blatant act of aggression that will gather nothing but hostility for little real gains. But those that see this as a reason to absolve Putin of the act fundamentally misunderstand the peculiar style with which he rules.
Putin’s rule is in ways paradoxical, he is often lauded for the stability and security he brings to Russia, and indeed this is the main argument of his supporters. But for him to be such a stabilizing pillar of state, there must be threats, external and internal, to the stability he provides. Were there no threats to Russia’s stability, it’s unlikely his oppressive rule would be tolerated.
The relatively recent annexation of Crimea for example, incurred harsh economic reprisal from the EU and NATO, being felt most severely by the common Russian, yet it only strengthened Putin’s support. Most Russians saw the sanctions as nothing but a naked act of western hostility on the state, no doubt a view encouraged by the Kremlin. Therefore, Putin can commit these controversial acts with impunity as in the end, any retaliation likely benefits him; it is not a stretch of the imagination to suppose he commits such actions with the controversy as an intentional goal. A line from 1984 springs to mind. For Putin War is peace, and peace is war. These foreign threats help him suppress his opposition.
Does this categorically mean the Kremlin was responsible for the Salisbury attack? Essentially, the question is irrelevant.
If he did do it, he certainly knew the possible outcomes, and was possibly even banking on the international retaliation to push fearful Russians into his camp during his recent landslide election. If he is innocent of the order, it’s in his interest to act as if he had committed the act anyhow. London’s Russian embassy certainly wants us to think he did it, with provocative tweets followed by half-hearted alibies.
A defector is dead, his people vote him back into power amid international sabre rattling, and the UK parliament is in turmoil over the incident; all in all, its been a productive few weeks for the Putin.
As it stands, the game is rigged in Putin’s favour, his geopolitical agenda necessitates chaos and international hostility, and with these sideffects he props up his domestic regime. Unless the British leadership wises up to these realities, he will continue to run rings around them and continue to be able carry out acts like the Salisbury attack with impunity.