Russian Nerve Agent Attack: A strategic unforced error or election stunt?

George Haimes responds to the reactions of the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, former double agent for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, and explores possible motives behind the attack. 

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, James Rogers and Andra-Lucia Martinescu identified both ‘area denial’ and ‘modulated warfare’ as the core tactics that the Russia state was using to undermine and discredit the West. Area denial is strictly geopolitical and strategic; it aims to block off important resources, sea routes and land that will be useful to Nato. Modulated warfare is far more dangerous and has wider implications. It includes disinformation campaigns, as seen in the 2016 US election and numerous states in the Balkans.

The nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, appears to be an extension of modulated warfare. Whilst eliminating an enemy of the Kremlin in Skripal, it was also a test of British strength and if their partnerships with the US, France, Germany and other Nato members has weakened in face of Brexit. If this is so, then the attack has been a massive own goal in Putin’s continued attack on the West that started with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008.

Whilst the Russian state would have hoped to see a fracture in relationships — be it a German reluctance to be involved, a French antipathy to British interests or US isolationism — none of this has taken place. Rather the joint statement issued on the 15th March, signed by the UK, US, France and Germany shows a more united and hardened position to Russian meddling. Rather than fracturing Western unity, the poisoning of the Skripals has actually created a hardened and more pessimistic view of the Kremlin, contrary to Putin’s interests. If this is so, then the nerve agent attack has been a sloppy and costly unforced error by Putin and his cronies.

Yet it is no coincidence that this attack has taken place within weeks of a Russian Presidential ‘election’. Whilst the result is not in doubt — Putin will inevitably win — the Skripal scandal plays to Putin’s internal audience. This attack and the Western response builds into a narrative of Western nations attacking and trying to humiliate ‘Mother Russia’. This will only strengthen the nationalist sentiment that is at the very core of Putin’s support.

Alexei Navalny, Putin’s main opposition, is correct in noting that British retaliation has very limited effects on Putin. Whilst in diplomatic circles the decision to expel 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ is seen as the correct response, for the majority of Russians and Britons this makes no difference. It is only with more extreme measures, such as clamping down on Putin’s cronies’ vast wealth in London, that the UK Government will actually exert meaningful punishment. Such a measure will have two beneficial effects: firstly, it will personally affect Putin and his close circle, but more importantly, it will bring exposure to the rampant corruption that is synonymous with Putin’s regime whilst it will inevitably make their shameless robbery of Russian state money harder.

Of course, there is a possibility — as some have raised — that this attack could have been carried out by rogue agents of the state or a mafia style hit. Whilst this would explain a strategic error on Putin’s part, it does not really matter. As Putin is aware, perception is everything. A YouGov poll found that 73% of respondents believed that Russia carried out the assassination attempt. Irrespective of the technicalities, the fate of the Skripals has hardened Western attitudes towards Russia. Putin’s tactics of deceit and covert operations, as characterised by modulate warfare, will be less effective in such an environment.

Akin to other Russian attacks on the West, it is highly unlikely that the true intentions behind this nerve agent attack will be revealed. Yet, it is clear that the assassination attempt on the Skripals has been a contradiction of the modulated warfare approach that the Kremlin has constantly adopted. Perhaps Putin was aware of the consequences but wanted to use the issue to rally support in his homeland. On the other hand, he may have hoped to create dis-unity in the West and has severely overplayed his hand. The only question now is how far Britain and its allies will go in punishing Putin’s regime. It is hoped there are still further measures, otherwise the expulsion of 23 diplomats will not spell any difference to Russia’s view of the West and may even encourage a more bullish Putin in his fourth term as President.