Two words of caution before we close down our judgment on the Salisbury poisonings.
One: I have never seen what's in it for Putin. He's had to take a deal of international flak for a crime committed shortly before the World Cup of football—which was designed to be, and was, a huge propaganda triumph for Russia. They hosted the event to widespread satisfaction and applause, and the Russian team even had the joy of staying in the competition after the World Cup titans Germany, Italy, and Argentina had been knocked out. Now why should Putin want to rain on his own parade?
Two: the efforts of the two Russian hitmen were embarrassingly, visibly obvious. The commentators, with their usual obtuseness, were reminded of the novels of John Le Carré. Not if they had read them. Le Carré is a far subtler writer than the Salisbury killers would suggest. Look at them—you can—two men always seen together, and it is infinitely harder to pin a loner on camera than two. These two came in on the same flight, stayed in the same cheap hotel room (payment in cash) for two nights, and took the same flight back from Heathrow to Moscow after the Skripal poisonings. They look like Muscovite thugs, for the excellent reason that that is what they are. They were constantly picked up on CCTV by one of the many cameras that infest the country. There was no need for the British security people to devote so much time and energy to clearing up the matter—Sam Spade could do it on his own.
Conclusion: inconclusive, necessarily. But I'll throw in a guess. The hitmen, who might as well have placarded themselves, are clearly a provokatsiya. By whom? They are part of the GRU (successors of the KGB) and might be a rogue element of the organization working to undermine their president. This factor is not unknown in other security operations. We could look for inspiration if not enlightenment at the films of Sergei Eisenstein, especially the two parts of “Ivan the Terrible.” We may be contemplating a new edition of “The Boyars’ Plot.”
Ralph Berry writes from England.