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Russia eyed in UK spy poisoning case. But why would the Kremlin do it?

how others see it

British Prime Minister Theresa May said today that the agent used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter was of Russian manufacture. But plausible motives for Kremlin action are in shorter supply.

Military personnel are prepared before working to remove cars from a car park in Salisbury, England, as police and members of the armed forces probe the suspected nerve agent attack on Russian double agent spy Sergei Skripal, Mar. 11. British government security ministers held an emergency meeting Saturday to discuss the poisoning of former spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia, as investigations continue.
Andrew Matthews/PA/AP

It certainly looks like a state actor was behind the attempted murder by exotic nerve agent of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain last week.

Outside of Russia, few people have any doubts about who that culprit must be, and most fingers are pointed squarely at Moscow. Indeed, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament today that it was “highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act,” and that the poison was “a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

There is, however, a distinct shortage of solid theories about why the Kremlin would have ordered such a high-profile attack on a man who – by all the traditional spy vs. spy rules – should no longer be of interest to security services. The only certain outcome is that it will be yet another in a long line of aggravated East-West crises that was already looking more acrimonious and unpredictable than the old cold war ever was.

Dmitry Kiselyov, one of Russia's most powerful media figures, speaks about the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, in Moscow on Mar. 11. The words at left read ‘death trap.’
RU-RTR Russian Television/AP

Who did it?

The Kremlin has categorically denied any involvement in the crime. Indeed, it's hard to see how Vladimir Putin, who looks set to be handily reelected next Sunday, and who is able to manifest his threats to the West in the form of late-generation nuclear missiles, could possibly benefit from the brutal murder of an obscure former turncoat who was pardoned and exchanged for captured Russian spies nearly a decade ago.

Predictably, some Russian analysts are claiming the attack on Mr. Skripal might have been a false flag operation by Western interests. They suggest the aim was to worsen the crisis of East-West mistrust and prompt tough measures, such as new sanctions against the huge numbers of wealthy Russians – including both pro-and-anti-Kremlin figures – who've parked their assets in Britain in recent years, or perhaps even more sweeping steps like a Western boycott of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. All that, and more, is already under active discussion in Britain.

Other experts seem less certain. Contrary to widespread Western belief, Mr. Putin's Russia is not under tight one-man control. Rather than the direct result of Kremlin diktat, experts say, a good deal of lawless behavior – from the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov three years ago to the recent cyber-shenanigans of Russia's “troll farm” – seems more plausibly explained by factions within Russia's sprawling establishment freelancing in their own interests, perhaps even aiming to please Putin.

In her statement to the British Parliament, Mrs. May said that it remained unclear whether Russia had intentionally deployed the nerve agent against Skripal, or if it had lost control of the poison and someone else used it. She said she was giving the Kremlin until the end of Tuesday to explain which possibility was the correct one. But many Russians believe that they are being framed.

“It does look like this attack had to be state-sponsored, and many here suspect some other [country] could have done this to implicate Russia,” says Sergei Karaganov, one of Russia's leading foreign policy specialists. “It seems unlikely to me, but possible, that some renegade forces inside the Russian elite might have done it” to embarrass Putin and drive Russia into an even more nationalistic corner. “It's hard to picture anyone defying Putin like that, but the possibility can't be excluded.”

And why?

Sergei Skripal was a career officer of Soviet military intelligence which, like its present day Russian incarnation, is known as the GRU, or main intelligence directorate. In 1995, he was recruited by the British secret service MI6, and reportedly handed over details of up to 300 Russian agents working abroad. He was caught in 2004, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced in 2006 to 13 years in a labor camp for treason. But four years later he was freed, pardoned by Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev and, along with three other convicted Russian spies, traded for 10 Russian “sleeper agents” caught in the US in a classic cold war-style spy swap.

“There has never been any case in the past when agents [who've been traded in this way] have been killed or harmed,” says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general who later worked for the Yukos oil empire of exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then served several years as a deputy of the State Duma. He says he doubts that Russian security services would tear up that old rule book, which benefits them as much as the other side. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Kondaurov's name.]

“If Moscow is accused of the Skripal story, I see no rational motivation for it,” he says. “Skripal didn't possess any useful information any more. Sure, he held classes on secret service methods [in Britain], but this stuff is as old as the pharaohs.”

Some critics have cited a 2010 video of Putin in which he calls “traitors” to Russia deserving of death as evidence of the Kremlin's hand behind Skripal's attempted murder. In the video, which has gained attention since the attack on Skripal, Putin says those who turn on their “their brother in arms ... Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

But the video offers no reason for why Skripal, of dozens of Russian former spies now living in the West, was targeted. Nor does it suggest why he would be targeted now, eight years after Putin's comments and being exchanged.

“Some people say maybe it was done to intimidate other [traitors] but I doubt that could work,” says Mr. Kondaurov. “More likely it will have the opposite effect.”

Soviet and Russian secret services have been known to assassinate their enemies abroad, including through the use of exotic poisons. The 2006 murder by radioactive polonium of former FSB anti-organized crime officer Alexander Litvinenko, which a British government inquiry determined was “most probably” ordered by Putin, is the case most frequently mentioned. Mr. Litvinenko, who defected to Britain in 2000, apparently later went to work for MI6, and also joined in the highly public anti-Kremlin campaigning of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Rough waters ahead

Putin addressed Russian security service professionals a week ago, ironically a day after Skripal's poisoning, and cast Russia as being on the defensive amid a ferocious assault by Western intelligence agencies. He claimed that Russian counter-intelligence had interdicted almost 400 foreign operatives working in Russia last year alone.

“I ask you to continue to work in this most important direction in an extremely concerted and effective way,” he told them, “to stop all attempts by foreign intelligence services to gain access to sensitive information of a political, economic, technological, and defensive nature.”

If British authorities officially implicate Russia in Skripal's attempted murder, as seems likely, it spells even stormier weather for Moscow's relations with the West. But in one respect, British retaliation could play into Putin's hands. Proposals to force rich Russians residing in Britain to explain the sources of their wealth, or risk having it seized, could force them to bring it back to Russia – something the Kremlin has been trying in vain to convince them to do for almost five years.

“People used to say that money has no citizenship. Now it seems that it does: Russian money is going to be treated as distinctly Russian,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “Putin has been offering all kinds of deals to rich Russians for years if they would repatriate their assets, but very few took him seriously. Maybe now they will.”

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