Russia outlandishly blames West as part of Putin provocation campaign

Russia outlandishly blames West as part of Putin provocation campaign
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After Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yuliya fell victim to the nerve agent “Novichok” in England, British authorities cast blame upon Russia and its secret services. Coming in the middle of a presidential election campaign for Vladimir Putin, the immediate hysteria and geopolitical intrigue allowed him to invigorate the race and reframe the election away from pocketbook issues and towards his traditional strengths of defending Russia from a cruel and Russophobic West.

Not more than a few weeks later, the use of chlorine gas in Syria against civilians was immediately blamed upon Russian-backed Syrian forces with a clear interest in defeating the last major source of rebel resistance to Bashar Assad’s government in the Damascus region. Yet in both instances, Russia not only deflected and denied any responsibility upon themselves or their allies, but blamed the United Kingdom by calling both acts “provocations.” This curious term serves a curious double purpose: First, to reassure the Russian public, and second, to confound the British public.

The first purpose serves to alert the Russian public that outside malevolent forces are trying to cast aspersion on Russian authorities and are trying to induce Moscow into some sort of overreaction that will lead to unknown but grievous consequences. As described by Dartmouth scholar Lynn Ellen Patyk, a “provocation” in Russian espionage culture is like a false flag attack.

By declaring the poisoning of the Skripals and blaming of Russia a “provocation,” Russian authorities are signaling to their domestic audience that they have seen through the ruse and are defending the country’s honor and interests by challenging the British, whom they cast as the “real” villains. The seemingly unrelated chemical attack in Syria can then be linked to the Skripal nerve agent attacks as a continuation of the campaign against Russia by the British.

If this “it’s all connected and there’s a giant malevolent conspiracy against us” sort of explanation feels like a detour into Infowars territory, then this points to the second purpose of a “provocation” claim. By forcing British authorities to respond to superficially ludicrous claims, it muddies the waters with British and international audiences. Instead of observing their political authorities identifying what happened and proposing steps for resolving crises, the British public sees their government going off into conspiratorial tangents. This slows down the policymaking process and instills doubt with the public unsure what, or whom, to believe.

At that point the second purpose of “provocation” charge is to inhibit the British policymaking process and protect Russia’s chief asset in the United Kingdom: The money that has flowed beyond its own borders to reside safely beyond the reach of the Russian government. The reason that money beyond the reach of Russian authorities would be a benefit to Moscow goes to the heart of how Russian domestic politics works and how Putin has stayed in power for so long.

Although supernatural powers seem to be often attributed to the Russian president, Putin is merely an excellent politician who has built a very wide domestic political coalition of those dependent on government spending and protection. These are the security services, the oligarchs, state employees, the poor and, just as important, the people who have made their money in dubious ways at home in Russia and have taken it abroad to places like London. By not reaching out and clawing back that money, Putin entered into a tacit social contract with those Russians abroad: Enjoy your money and don’t complain about Russia.

If British authorities were to cause difficulties for those Russians with “unexplained wealth,” they would naturally appeal to Putin to do something to help them as they had upheld their end of the bargain. That appeal would then force a very difficult political choice upon Putin to either do something to interfere further in British affairs or have the limits of his power recognized. Keeping British authorities distracted by outlandish accusations helps prevent difficult choices being forced on Putin and helps keep his political coalition together. So long as Putin needs to protect his people abroad, expect these allegations to continue.

Yuval Weber, Ph.D., is the Kennan Institute fellow at Daniel Morgan Graduate School and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. You can follow him on Twitter @YuvalWeber.