March 14, 2018 9:00 am
While steadfastly denying any involvement in the attack, the Kremlin has added the episode to a daily diet of news on state news media outlets that showcase what Mr. Putin, in a recent state of the nationaddress in Moscow, described as Russia’s invincible might and its readiness to strike back at enemies wherever they are.
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Like the new missile systems unveiled by Mr. Putin in that speech, the attack on Mr. Skripal has only added to the president’s stature, at least among his base at home, as a fearless defender of the nation ready to do anything, no matter how risky, to assert Russia’s status as a great power to be feared.
Rather than bow to British demands for an explanation of how a Russian-made military nerve agent ended up in Salisbury, Moscow went on the offensive. Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov on Tuesday dismissed British accusations as “nonsense” and demanded that Britain hand over the nerve agent used against Mr. Skripal and his daughter. Russia, he added, had so far “received an incoherent response, which amounts to a rejection of our legitimate demands.”
Just as Britain did earlier to Russia’s ambassador in London, the Kremlin on Tuesday summoned the British ambassador to Moscow to demand an explanation.
Vladislav Inozemtsev, a Russia scholar currently at the Polish Institute of Advanced Studies in Warsaw, said the nerve-agent episode showed that “talking to Mr. Putin has become senseless.” The Russian president and his senior officials, he said, would “never assume responsibility,” whatever the facts were, and would only gloat over the suffering of a traitorous former spy — still unconscious and in critical condition — while blaming Britain for it.
“They will stick to the thesis that Westerners kill agents they do not need anymore and then blame Russia,” Mr. Inozemtsev said.
Russia under Mr. Putin, said Mr. Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services, “has given up on winning respect through soft power and is pursuing what I call ‘dark power.’ ”
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This approach, which involves Russia throwing its weight around and then reveling in the outrage this causes, Mr. Galeotti added in a telephone interview, “plays into Putin’s own natural instincts that a great power is one that is feared. It is better and much easier to be feared than loved.”
Of all the virtues in which Mr. Putin takes pride, none has more importance to the Russian leader — a veteran of a Soviet security apparatus built around a cult of loyalty to the state — than his commitment to the idea that nobody, especially not spies who defy their vows, can escape punishment for betrayal.
Answering questions from citizens in a 2010 phone-in program, Mr. Putin praised intelligence officers as “people who lay their whole lives on the altar of the Fatherland” and denounced those who betrayed this mission as “pigs” whose fate would be so miserable that they would “regret a thousand times” their treachery.
Mr. Skripal, who was convicted of high treason in Russia in 2004 and then allowed to settle in Britain after a 2010 spy swap, was a case study of all that Mr. Putin loathes.
Mr. Skripal almost certainly had no more Russian secrets to betray when he was attacked with a nerve agent identified as one of a Russian-produced class of chemicals known as Novichok. But he still represented an affront to the principle that betrayal must never go unpunished: He was alive and living comfortably in a pleasant English cathedral town.
As happened after accusations that Russia was responsible for the 2006 murder in London by radioactive poisoning of another intelligence turncoat, Alexander V. Litvinenko, the downing of a Malaysian passenger aircraft over Ukraine in 2014 and meddling in America’s 2016 presidential election, officials and state news media outlets in Moscow responded with a barrage of denials and mockery to the latest outrage. They have scoffed at the idea Russia could possibly have had any role in the attack on Mr. Skripal and even suggested that the whole episode might have been fabricated.
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The Russian Embassy in London, in sneering statements on its website and Twitter feed, refers to the “Sergei Skripal Case,” using quotation marks to suggest it does not believe there really is such a case.
Russia has yet to address in any detail the main piece of evidence pointing to a Russian hand — that Novichok agents have been produced only in Russia — and has instead developed conspiracy theories involving Ukraine, British revenge for past athletic defeats ahead of this year’s World Cup soccer tournament in Russia and other far-fetched explanations.
Moscow has been exasperated that its denials are not taken seriously and have been mocked relentlessly under a Twitter hashtag, #Russiadenies, even though officials have in the past acknowledged what they had earlier denied.
Mr. Putin and his lieutenants, for example, denied for weeks that Russian soldiers were involved in the seizure of Ukrainian military bases and government offices in Crimea in March 2014. The action, they insisted, was entirely the work of local “self-defense units.” The following month, however, Mr. Putin made a sharp U-turn, declaring, “Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defense forces.”
Maria V. Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, mocked Mrs. May’s statement to Parliament in London as a “circus show,” adopting a sneering and decidedly undiplomatic tone now in vogue among Russian diplomats and commentators.
But in an earlier comment, soon after news of the nerve gas attack in Salisbury broke, the evening news host on the state-controlledChannel One gave voice to what, under Mr. Putin, is the Russian state’s view of traitors.
“I don’t wish death on anyone, but for purely educational purposes, I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career,” the newscaster Kirill Kleimenov told viewers. “The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world.”world
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