Russia Escalates Novichok Crisis, Shifting Onus to US

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 49

Cleanup operations in England after nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal (Source: AFP)

Moscow announced last week (March 29) that 60 American diplomats would be expelled, delivering a “mirror” response to every Western country that had sanctioned Russia in solidarity with the United Kingdom (see EDM, March 29). What appeared to be a tit-for-tat response in a diplomatic row was in fact an escalation of the crisis, sparked a few weeks ago by an attempted assassination on British soil with the use of a weaponized chemical agent. This escalation has manifested itself, first of all, in the sharp and aggressive language used by the official representatives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, March 28). Some mainstream Russian experts tried to defuse the tensions and argue that the traditional punishment of severing diplomatic ties makes little sense when more communication is urgently needed (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 28). But their voices were lost in the furious assertions that Russia—which has a new arsenal of nuclear missiles, described in much detail during President Vladimir Putin’s address to the parliament last month—would not tolerate any censure (, March 22).

Putin’s missiles-of-March were for the most part just fanciful designs (see EDM, March 1), but a stream of propaganda visuals seeks to present them as ready for combat deployment (, March 23). The second test of the Sarmat (RS-28) heavy inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) was rushed, but in fact it will take many more tests before this “product” will be ready to replace the aging SS-18 Satan (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 30). The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that new groupings of long-range cruise missiles are now positioned in every strategic theater, while in fact not a single new weapon system of this class has been deployed (RIA Novosti, March 24). The most worrisome news was actually Moscow’s demand that a limited area over the Baltic Sea be closed to air traffic because of Russian missile tests, which galvanized protests in Latvia (, March 30). These bluffs and posturing target the gaps in Western solidarity, which has proved stronger in recent weeks than Moscow had envisaged (see EDM, March 29).

Another assault on Western unity aims at presenting the US as the main driver of the confrontation, portraying other participants in the curtailing of diplomatic ties (except certainly the UK) as victims of American “blackmail” (, March 29). Austria, for that matter, has been praised for resisting US “pressure” (RBC, March 29). The US move (including the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle) was indeed much stronger than the Kremlin had expected after the problem-free March 20 telephone conversation between Putin and President Donald Trump (Kommersant, March 28). Now Putin’s aides and courtiers assume that the reshuffles at the White House National Security Council and the State Department signify a possible shift toward a tougher course against Russia, which needs to be discouraged and pre-empted (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 26). Moscow is already suggesting that the curtailing of Russian international propaganda channels may be met with further restrictions on the work of Western media outlets inside Russia (, March 30). The problem with such retaliation is that the US might, in turn, execute further punitive measures in areas of economics, finance and technology—where Russia has no capabilities or competitive edge (, March 28).

The export of Russian natural gas to Europe, which used to be perceived as a potential political lever, is presently so valuable for Moscow that it is doing everything possible to bracket it out of the political fray (Rosbalt, March 29). Gazprom is deeply worried about the competition from the expanding US export of liquefied natural gas (LNG) (Kommersant, March 30). It is even prepared to settle its financial dispute with Ukraine according to the verdict of the Stockholm arbitrage, swallowing the initial rejection (, March 29). Russian businesses are adjusting their budgets, adding greater costs for all kinds of financial services involving Western banks (, March 30). The most painful squeeze, however, would arguably come from undermining Russia’s ability to export corruption, which Moscow relies on to spread its crime and espionage, including in its interference in the 2016 US election (see EDM, July 17, 2017). The UK has now taken the lead in blocking this channel as its parliament opens hearings on the inflow of dubious Russian money into such “safe havens” as the London real estate market (, March 29, 2018).

Meanwhile, the corruption issue has also exploded in the Russian domestic political arena. Already in the first week after Putin’s firmly managed re-election, protests erupted in the Moscow region because of poisonous fumes being emitted by local overflowing rubbish dumps (, March 30). Regional authorities had been profiting from this dirty business; and to try to mollify the public outrage, they so far have only been re-directing columns of trucks with unsorted and untreated waste to other, less politically charged dumpsites (Novaya Gazeta, March 31). The March 25 tragedy in Kemerovo has produced even greater political resonance: 64 people died in a fire in a shopping mall, caused by glaring (and in Russia strikingly common) violations of safety measures, covered by bribes and officially sanctioned racketeering (, March 28). Putin paid a short visit to Kemerovo, where long-sitting governor Aman Tuleev was eager to present the public indignation against his corrupt rule as extremism sponsored by “external forces” (New Times, March 27). Tuleev has since resigned, but the ultimate responsibility for building the predatory system of power, which regularly disregards the well-being and lives of millions of Russians, rests with Putin (Moscow Echo, March 27).

The shock of the horrible inferno brought about by the banality of greed, as well as the grieving for dozens of perished children, has made the Russian population unresponsive to the government’s propaganda onslaught calling for mobilization against Western pressure. The expulsion of diplomats appears to be just another quarrel of little consequence; and the sanctions targeting huge and small fortunes evacuated by bureaucrats of various caliber to London or New York can hardly be portrayed as a great injustice to average Russians. Denials of involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent poisoning ring as false as denials of responsibility for the Kemerovo tragedy. Putin’s missiles provide no deterrent against Western solidarity and no consolation for Russia’s deteriorating social infrastructure. Putin showcases resolve to counter the US challenge and compassion for the shattered families and communities, but neither is convincing. He feels compelled to escalate the external crisis, counting on confusion in Western policymaking. But his own confusion in governing the post-election and post-illusion Russia will not be overcome by pseudo-patriotic posturing.