Vladimir Putin has long understood that Russia can easily exploit the cynicism that permeates political perceptions across the West.
The use of the Soviet chemical weapon, Novichok, in close proximity to the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, hardly seems coincidental. It accomplished two things:
1. By deploying this agent so close to the lab, operatives could be fairly confident that British authorities with the required expertise would be able to positively identify the chemical, i.e. Russia’s calling card would be relatively easy to decipher.
2. Carrying out an attack so close to such a controversial facility would instantly provide fodder for conspiracy theories promoting the idea that Porton Down itself was the origin of the Novichok used in the attack. Russia did not hesitate to seed such speculation:
Wonder why @GavinWilliamson makes explicit link with the nearby Porton Down chemical weapons lab pic.twitter.com/kK3ZH26kOb
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) March 9, 2018
Predictably, Craig Murray and others (with the support of the Russian government and media) were swift to hoist “false flag” claims of one kind or another.
3/ The Embassy’s #Skripal talking points are used so often by Putin & Kremlin officials, we know the script:
a) Russophobia–Hysteria–Russia's the real victim
b) Speculation–No Proof
c) Show us Classified Evidence
e) West's Hypocrisy
f) Trolling pic.twitter.com/MPFm340Kul
— Paula Chertok🗽 (@PaulaChertok) March 12, 2018
Initially, Putin’s chief asset in Washington responded to Britain’s allegations in a way that pleased Russia:
Nicely done, @realDonaldTrump, @PressSec.
Russian media is happy to report:
“The White House refused to blame #Russia for #Skripal poisoning.” pic.twitter.com/I10KCNfAGx
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) March 12, 2018
Today, Trump has inched towards Britain’s assessment while allowing himself wiggle room to question this conclusion, using language (“Russia or whoever it may be”) similar to his equivocations on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections.
As for the conspiracy theories on the attack, their intrinsic weakness is counterbalanced by their abundance.
As easy as each might be to shoot down, they can instantly be replaced by another. Their function is not to persuade anyone of anything but on the contrary to raise doubts and suspicions and thereby immobilize public opinion. The more often people say, “I don’t know who to believe,” “the media and politicians are always lying,” etc. the clearer it becomes that Russia’s disinformation campaign has been effective.
Russian media analyst, Julia Davis, has diligently been tracking Russian state media conspiracy theories on the attack, starting with:
#1 Accidental exposure
#3 Untrustworthy or complicit lab (Porton Down)
#4 Accidental overdose
#5 Stoking Russophobia
#6 Attempted assassination to frame Russia
#7 Cui bono? The British!
#8 It was the Americans
Davis notes that when Russian media is not busy promoting its conspiracy theories on the attack, it gladly asserts that Sergei Skripal got what he deserved.
When #Russia's state media is not pushing #Skripal conspiracy theories, it's happy to tell you why "the traitor had it coming." Many newscasts introduce him as "Traitor Skripal," echoing the words from Putin's infamous interview: "Traitors always end in a bad way." pic.twitter.com/U30wFHKVCf
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) March 9, 2018
Russia’s social media manipulation promotes political divisions, confusion, and endless distraction, thereby undermining serious discussion about Putin’s role on the world stage.
Having come of age in an era when, by virtue of its nuclear arsenal and military might the USSR could credibly present itself as America’s equal, Putin must now see such strength, when perpetually held in reserve, as yielding very limited power.
For someone who wants to present himself as a man of action, deterrence has less appeal than intimidation.
Just as a mafia boss cannot maintain his power by simply promoting fear of what he might do, he also feels compelled to demonstrate his capacity to unleash violence.
It’s no coincidence that Russia’s most significant military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan has been in support of a regime that has repeatedly engaged in chemical warfare, including the use of Russian-sourced weapons.
The international response to the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013, demonstrated to Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran, that the U.S. and its allies have no enforceable red lines on the use of chemical weapons.
Whether used in Syria or Salisbury, such weapons now signal the ability of rogue states to provoke swift expressions of international outrage followed by limited repercussions. Images of the use of brutal power serve to amplify a sense of global paralysis.
Following the British government’s accusation of Russia’s role in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the White House conspicuously declined to call out Russia. At the same time, Rex Tillerson issued a statement, saying:
There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.
Putin’s puppet in the Oval Office has responded by firing Tillerson.
Meanwhile, another of Putin’s critics, Nikolai Glushkov, has been found dead at his home in London.
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