Russia under President Putin is once again a cultural and military powerhouse. His leadership has transformed the Russian economy from a basket-case to (almost) a stable emerging market. He was seen to propel an iron fist against Islamic State’s territorial advances, when other leaders were seen to equivocate or even cut their own military strength at home.
On the eve of his inevitable re-election, his administration can point to a new generation of nuclear weapons and fighter jets, the defeat Georgia’s US-backed attempt to join NATO (2008) the temporary ruin of Estonia’s (and other Former Soviet states’) infrastructure by cyber-attacks, the reclaiming of Crimea.
Putin has also overseen the extraordinary rise of new Russia’s tech and media capability, including the successful expansion of state-controlled media outlets, located in strategically critical centres of political power: Washington, London, Beijing, Paris and Berlin.
Russia’s army now numbers one million, backed-up by 2.5 million reserve personnel. Thanks to President Putin, each receives a salary.
As the President himself acknowledged recently on his campaign trail: “No one listened to us. You listen to us now.” His team’s view is that Russia’s goal should at least attain Eurasian superpower status.
Those wishing to further step into the mind of one of the world’s leading political strategists should absorb an online copy of the President’s 2015 National Security Strategy.
Perhaps tacitly acknowledging Russia’s relative economic disadvantage (in comparison to other major powers) the strategy states: “The role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining.”
In sum, like him or loathe him, whether one views him as provoked or an international provocateur, every action that President Putin’s Kremlin has taken (sometimes influenced by a populist, conservative Duma) has been taken in the interests of one strategic goal: Moscow’s global power status.
This presents a dilemma for his undoubted millions of sympathisers and supporters outside of Russia.
Because what happened on Sunday 11th March in a bustling Salisbury restaurant points to a strategic error squarely located in Moscow.
Whether the attack was recently centrally approved or conducted unbeknownst to the President as part of a long-standing order by Russian authorities, is probably the only debatable element to this case of multiple attempted murder.
Either way, an immediate government-to-government response, rightly sparked by Theresa May, is required.
The core elements of any crime are a means and motive. There is simply no plausible motivation for any other terror or crime group to track down a former Russian intelligence officer and specifically attack that individual, at that time and place.
Nor is it in any way feasible, that a terror group, which had gleefully got its hands on the world’s most potent nerve agent, would travel away from the iconic crowded centres of London, or any other metropolis, towards a tiny Wiltshire cathedral city, to attack one single individual eating lunch, who happened to be, quite by coincidence, a former Russian military intelligence officer.
Moreover, the fact that Novichok was produced only at Shikhany, Central Russia, and perhaps handled by one other former Soviet utility, gives us a further clue as to why the US President (generally pro-Putin), French President, German Chancellor and UK Prime Minister took the historically unprecedented step to issue a joint communique condemning the attack before any subsequent investigations and findings were made by the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The logistics are also telling. Those few people experienced in planning and executing a chemical-weapons based attack, will be acutely aware that innocent civilians caught up by the incident are also likely to be severely injured or killed.
Indeed, it is precisely because of the lack of precision-radius, and psychological terror-amplification, that terror groups (including ISIS in Syria and Iraq) and governments throughout history (including Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq), have often turned to deploying chemical weapons.
Therefore, whoever the perpetrator might be, the choice of weapon used against Sergei Skripal is likely to be a significant wider message: an act of imagined legal impunity as well as a total disregard it seems for innocent British citizens and our emergency first responders.
The UK Government’s robust response at a political level has been measured, solidly communicated and impactful.
If the polar opposite had occurred in Russia, with the equivalent vapor trail of evidence leading to London, the Kremlin would have been at least as robust.
Moreover, why on earth should the ‘victim’ nation-state be pressured into handing over vital forensic evidence to the prime suspect? No matter how long it takes, a full and unconditional investigation is required to occur until charges can be put and all necessary evidence then outlined.
In no sensible criminal investigation, particularly a murder enquiry, should the prime suspect be provided with the investigation plan and updates on evidential findings.
Calling for such is an understandable decoy by Moscow but utterly irrational to London.
With Russia’s promising economy shrinking – and in population proportionate terms, a quarter of the size of the UK’s – it is nobody’s economic or geopolitical interest to expand and lose control of this incident and see it become a full-blown global crisis.
Perhaps rather tellingly, and sensing further turbulence, many Russian media outlets are this weekend running a plethora of news stories peddling storylines about lost WMD after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
For sure, chemical weapons may well have gone astray. And they might be partly-accurate in blaming a withdrawal of some western funding to secure those facilities after US President Bill Clinton left office.
But the fact remains, that this weapon ended up trying to murder a human being that no other government, and no other terror group, had any interest in whatsoever.
This rather inconvenient coincidence merits Theresa May’s response so far.