Will elements in Russia’s security services now push for a special operation to set up a jailbreak for two of their colleagues convicted last week of murder in Qatar? The pro-Kremlin website Strana.ru published an interview on July 1 with an unnamed “high-ranking general, close to Russian military intelligence,” suggesting a profound degree of discontent and even rage within the security structures over how the Qatar episode has been handled.
The Qatar trial ended on June 30 with two Russian GRU (military intelligence) officers sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment for having assassinated a Chechen extremist in February. The judge specifically emphasized that the Russian government had approved the killing. In an interview with Vladimir Demchenko of Izvestia published on July 2, Qatar’s former minister of justice Nadzhib al-Nayumi said that the prison sentence had come as a “great surprise” to him. “I was sure that they would be sentenced to death,” al-Nayumi told the newspaper. “Over the course of the last 30 years I cannot remember even one court sentence which spared the life of someone convicted of premeditated murder.”
Nevertheless, the anonymous general interviewed by Strana.ru called the trial’s outcome “a palpable slap in the face to the authority of our country.” The experience should be “a lesson for all,” he said. Even if the emir of Qatar should now yield to diplomatic entreaties and pardon the two Russian officers, he would still have “achieved his most important goal,” the general said, which is “humiliating a great power, showing that ‘you are worthless and I am master in my own country, I will decide for myself how and with whom to cooperate, and if I pardon your people, it will be solely because of my own mercy toward those whom I have insulted and humiliated.'” The general concluded: “Thus to say that our government is now doing all it can to obtain the release of its citizens, all the more since they are operatives of the security services, is to mock the feelings of their relatives and comrades—many of whom may now find themselves utterly disenchanted with their duties.”
Continuing in the same bitter tone, the general observed: “[O]ur Minister of Defense has stated that we will liberate these Russians by whatever means necessary. It is hard to believe that; unfortunately, words too often fail to be connected with deeds in our country. The Americans, for example, have shown everyone that they do not abandon their own people. If something like this happened to them, their commandos would burst onto the scene or perhaps an attack would be mounted with high-precision weapons….in any case they would be demonstrative and highly decisive. Even if they did not succeed, all the same they would show that their government has reacted. Because in such cases it is not only the citizens of a country that suffer—citizens who have families and friends—but the country itself that receives a colossal blow to its prestige.”
Even if this general’s point of view is widespread within the Russian security services, the Putin administration probably will not mount a dramatic operation against Qatar—the political cost would be too high. More likely the Kremlin will look for some other method to appease the sullen siloviki—again setting back peace in Chechnya and freedom in Russia.