Taking on Moscow over Skripal so close to elections could prove a risky strategy

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heyOn Tuesday, the Kremlin once again dominated the front pages of international editions.

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In the morning, the European Court of Human Rights linked Russian agents to the 2006 murder of former spy Alexander Litvinenko. Hours later, Scotland Yard announced that it was charging Russian intelligence agent Denis Sergeev, previously identified by investigative outlet Bellingcat, over the 2018 Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

In Russia, however, the headlines were far more subdued. One reason for this is the restrained nature of the local media. But it’s also because over the years, Moscow has developed a cynical, yet sophisticated, formula for dealing with bad news days.

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The front-footed approach usually begins by dismissing “baseless allegations” as Russophobic conspiracies. It then looks for ambiguity in complex stories. And failing all that, it escalates to satire, ridicule and boomerang.

When accused of hybrid warfare, Moscow responds reliably “you too”, for example, investigators dismiss Bellingcat as an “agent” of a British (or Dutch, or American) state. When linked to election interference in the US, it says Google and Apple are trying to influence Russian elections. And then it uses logic to force them to curb their censorship demands.

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So it should come as no surprise that when the new charges were announced on Tuesday, Russia’s immediate reaction was to calmly retaliate against its accusers.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said it was Britain that violated international law. After all, he had “outrageously” denied consular access to two unidentified “Russian citizens”. Assuming that the civilians she refers to are Skripals having survived a nerve agent attack, it’s not hard to understand why they aren’t seeking such access.

On the charge of failing to cooperate with UK police inquiries, Ms Zakharova said it was Russia that was insisting on the truth and an open investigation. He said, ‘We are waiting for detailed information in this regard from the UK. Europe’s top human rights court’s decision on Litvinenko meanwhile was an “attempt to create Russophobia”.

In the State Duma, deputy Yelena Panina, a key member of the foreign affairs committee, said the allegations were part of a carefully coordinated attack on Russian sovereignty. He said the Skripal affair has become a “systematic” tool to “discredit” the Russian elections.

“It was used as a provocation just before the March 2018 presidential elections, when Theresa May raised the degree of confrontation” [against Russia]”

Of course, there are more grounded ways of looking at the timeline of events in Salisbury. Not least by questioning why a former spy would have been attacked – with the potential for collateral damage in a foreign state – during an election week.

Some have, in fact, suggested that the operation and the massive backlash helped the Kremlin shore up Russia’s image as a besieged fortress just before the vote.

This context prompts London to announce that they are accusing a new suspect shortly after the Duma elections which appears to be a touch provocative. There is no clear reason why it needed to be done this week. After all, the identity of Denis Sergeev has long been in the public sphere.

It may well be that London believes the best way to face Moscow is to play them at their own game. If so, that would be a shame. The consequences of both the Litvinenko and Skripal cases are so dire that they cannot be reconciled in small tricks.

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Credit: www.independent.co.uk /

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