Last week saw the wheels come off yet another false story concerning Russia, namely the claim that Russian intelligence had paid the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. It was always highly dubious, but that didn’t stop many from repeating it as gospel truth. Apparently, the US intelligence community now admits that it has only ‘low to medium confidence’ in the accusation, which doesn’t mean that they are entirely rejecting it, but does pose a lot of questions about why so many people, including major media outlets, hyped a story for which there was never a substantial basis.
Alas, it’s hardly a lone case and, as I’ve said before, poor reporting matters not only because it’s inaccurate (though that it is bad enough), but also because it discredits the media. The result is that when the press does report something truthful which makes Russia look bad there are a substantial number of people who refuse to believe it. But it’s a mistake to decide that because so much reporting is false, all of it is. Some of it is true. The Russian state is far from a paragon of virtue and engages in its fair share of bad behaviour.
An example is the news this weekend that the Czech government has accused agents of Russian military intelligence of blowing up an arms depot in the Czech Republic, an action that resulted in two deaths. As with so many of these stories, it’s impossible to 100% verify the claim from the information available in the press. But I found myself convinced.
Supposedly, the purpose of the attack was to destroy weapons owned by Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Grebev. who is said to have been selling weapons to people deemed undesirable by the Russian government. That provides motive.
On top of that, the Czech government reports that shortly before the explosion, the depot was visited by two men whose passport photos match those of the notorious Petrov and Boshirov, who were identified by the British police as being in the town of Salisbury on the day that former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok. Petrov and Boshirov have also been identified as members of Russian military intelligence. So we have opportunity as well.
All that doesn’t constitute proof, but it’s fairly convincing. Identical-looking people, with links to a foreign intelligence agency, turn up in the same places and on the same days as a poisoning and an explosion. What are the odds that it’s coincidence? Pretty low, in my opinion. It seems to me that the Czechs have got the Russians bang to rights on this one.
Likewise, I think that this news should dispel any doubts that anybody still has about the role of Petrov and Boshirov in the Skripal poisoning. I for one never thought that they were in Salisbury to ‘look at the spire’. A less plausible pair of cultural tourists it would be hard to find. But anybody who was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt should now think again. As I said, it’s too coincidental to be innocent. Likely as not, the Russians are guilty as charged, both in Salisbury and in Czechia.
Perhaps it’s my background as an intelligence officer, but I’ve long felt that intelligence agencies should stick to information gathering and give up all that ‘covert operations’ nonsense. Coups, assassinations, sabotage, and all the rest of it – what difference have they made at the end of the day in the grander scheme of things? Precious damn little as far as I can see.
But they do result in harm. Russia’s goons seem to show a reckless disregard for the possibility of collateral damage, leaving nerve agent-filled bottles lying around for members of the public to pick up, and blowing up arms dumps in a way that kills innocent bystanders. They also appear to be more than a little sloppy in their tradecraft, regularly leaving behind more than a few traces of their actions, with the result that their plots keep being revealed and their identities known to the public.
All this has a very negative effect on Russia’s international reputation. Extremely negative. I really can’t exaggerate how bad the effect is. It’s terrible. If I were working in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’d be tearing up my hair in despair as I have to once again cover up the idiocy and criminality of my country’s security and intelligence services.
Ideally, the person at the top of the bureaucratic food chain would put a stop to it. Unfortunately, it would seem that, even if he can’t be proven to have ordered any specific mission, he protects those who do. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly doesn’t rule the roost.
It’s common for the Russian government to blame Russophobia and ‘fake news’ in the foreign press for hostility it faces from Western states. There is an element of truth in that claim, and this blog has devoted more than a little time to demonstrating it. But, Russophobia only has traction because it makes sense to people, and it makes sense because even if the Russian state doesn’t do all the things it’s accused of, it does do some of them. It’s not all fake news.
I’ve often said that Western states need to be more introspective and recognize their own responsibility for the problems of the world. The same goes for Russia. Ultimately, if Russia is in a difficult diplomatic position, the actor mostly to blame isn’t hard to find – the Russian state itself.