Heroes of the Fatherland: Killing Here, Hacking There

Sergei Skripal — the “scumbag” and “traitor,”’according to Putin — still lives. But the likely wider objective of demonstrating the will and capacity to act in such a flagrant way was accomplished. Even so, in the aftermath of the attack, the two alleged military intelligence officers were unmasked (which was likely predicted) but it also triggered a wave of international diplomatic expulsions (which surely came as a surprise).

So, a partial operational success, a full political one, but also an unexpected geopolitical setback. A score of 1.8 out of 3? Actually, the arithmetic was probably even more favorable. The expulsions were embarrassing, and undoubtedly caused short-term problems as new case officers hurriedly connected with their predecessors’ agents. However, there has been no sense yet of a major and lasting impact on Russian intelligence activity, not least as it is not entirely dependent on officers based under diplomatic cover.

More to the point, there is no real evidence that the Kremlin regards public disclosure as a serious problem. Just as with so many other aspects of Moscow’s geopolitics, there is a theatrical aspect. As the country tries to assert an international status out of proportion with the size of its economy, its soft power and arguably even its effective military strength, it relies on the fact that politics are about perception.

By nurturing a narrative that its spies are everywhere, hacking here, killing there and rigging elections in between, they contribute to Russia’s claim of being a great power, even if an awkward and confrontational one.

After all, the calculation appears to be that there is little scope in 2019 for any major improvement in relations so long as the West remains united. If populist leaders of some countries break rank over European sanctions— however unlikely that appears — then that is a plus. But overall the Kremlin seems to have concluded, not without reason, that it is stuck in confrontation for the long haul. The later U.S. sanctions, based as they are on past misdeeds, offer no clear “off ramps” and especially contribute to the sense that relations are permafrosted.

Short of what Moscow would rightly consider capitulation — a withdrawal from Crimea, abandonment of its adventures in both Ukraine and Syria, and a general acceptance of a global order it feels is essentially a Western-dictate done — then the confrontation is here to stay. So there is no incentive for Moscow to scale down its aggressive intelligence campaign in the West anytime soon.