I am losing confidence in Vladimir Putin. Time was when I had naive respect for the operations of the KGB or whatever the descendants of the Cheka and Ogpu call themselves these days. Whatever one thought of their moral pond life, these people were serious. Had they not turned any number of British and Americans? In drama, it would take Smiley (if played by Alec Guinness) to get the better of Karla (even if played by Patrick Stewart). John Le Carré never sold them short. On the other hand was the proud Anglo-American tradition of useless spooks. It was always our people who were stunningly incompetent, a vein of comedy that never faded—and last week Rowan Atkinson premiered his latest Johnny English movie. To have this tradition challenged by Russian klutzes is a jolt to our perceptions, which I for one find hard to take.
But what else is one to think? The Skripal poisoning in Salisbury was carried out by a couple of Russian thugs who helpfully went about as a pair, making it supremely easy for the British CCTV system to pick them up. They then returned to Moscow together on a scheduled flight, whose passenger list was not too hard for British security to scan. Was this really the creme de la creme of Russian espionage? At least there was a possible explanation, that this was the work of a rogue agency set on making trouble for the president. But all reports say that the orders came from the very top.
And now four cyber spies have been shown up as bunglers supreme. They flew to Holland to hack a chemical watchdog analyzing the poison that killed Skripal and made a series of mistakes. They kept a taxi receipt from the GRU Moscow HQ; they used diplomatic passports with consecutive numbers; they had £33,000 in euros and dollars; they had put their hotel rubbish into a bag, which they left in their hire car; they tried to destroy their phones and equipment; they were met by Russian officials at Schiphol airport, itself a serious security breach. They were stopped by the Dutch security people and immediately sent back to Moscow. I cannot believe that Putin was pleased, still less so the GRU commander Igor Korobov. The “rogue agency” theory fails unless one concludes that the entire system is riddled with rogue elements aimed at the downfall of Vladimir Putin. What kind of provokatsiya is this?
Of course, one can also conclude that Putin has been at the top for too long, and the old boy's mind and powers are diminishing.
Ralph Berry writes from England.