Putin's missteps over the Russian spy murder

Russian President Vladimir Putin is often credited with being a master tactician.But in his country's response...

Posted: Mar 27, 2018 7:10 PM
Updated: Mar 27, 2018 7:10 PM

Russian President Vladimir Putin is often credited with being a master tactician.

But in his country's response to the alleged nerve agent attack in the UK, he may have overplayed his hand.

In a concerted move on Monday, the United States, Canada, member states of the European Union and Ukraine expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats, backing the UK in what British Prime Minister Theresa May called the "the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history."

For years, Western officials have complained of Russian spy games, and the Kremlin's ability to sow doubt and confusion with propaganda and spin.

At first, Russia's response to the attack in the English city of Salisbury followed that predictable script.

After May said Russia was "highly likely" responsible for the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this month, Russian officials responded with denials.

"A circus show," scoffed Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. "Nonsense," said Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that Russia had no motive to poison on the eve of presidential elections and the World Cup.

Then there were the contradictory accounts. Russia said it had destroyed its chemical-weapons stockpiles; it said it had no weapon codenamed Novichok, the nerve agent the UK says was used in the attack. A Russian scientist gave an interview to state media claiming to have worked on Novichok, but a key passage was subsequently redacted online to read: "A program for creating a chemical weapon called Novichok did not exist."

And then there were the conspiracy theories: The Skripal case was a plot to sabotage the World Cup; the British, the Slovaks, the Czech, the Swedes or even the Americans could be suspected of cooking up the stuff.

To many observers, it seemed similar to the theories thrown out by Russian state media and Russian officials in the wake of the downing of MH-17 in 2014: competing narratives thrown out like chaff to distract and confuse.

And the timing of the international response riled some Russian observers. Russia on Wednesday will observe a period of mourning after a tragic fire in a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, an incident that claimed dozens of lives. Putin traveled to Kemerovo to meet with grieving families and focused his public remarks Tuesday on the tragedy.

In an interview published Tuesday in the respected business newspaper Kommersant, US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman expressed condolences to the Russian people. But asked why the US and its allies moved, even as the Salisbury investigation continued, Huntsman made it clear something had changed. Washington and its allies, he seemed to suggest, were fed up with the lying.

Huntsman said he saw from the Russian side "a sea of disinformation, making it very hard for people to tell fact from fiction. So we've had to rely, as the UK, on their own rigorous approach to the facts that they know and the rigorous investigation. We have great trust in what they have done and what they will do."

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