The spire of Salisbury Cathedral looms not just over relations between Russia and the West but also over Russia’s internal politics. Ordinary Russians are puzzling over how the heroic image they have always had of their intelligence services fits with the multiple blunders of the Skripal operation. Yet maybe they are failing to understand the new rules those services operate by.  

The official Russian cover story for the two supposed sports nutrition salesmen, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, and their trip to Salisbury gets thinner by the day. The latest revelation that “Boshirov” is very likely the military colonel Anatoly Chepiga makes this version even more implausible. In their now famous interview on the RT television channel, the two men accused of trying to assassinate former spy Sergei Skripal and of having unintentionally killed British citizen Dawn Sturgess, not only failed to convince but revealed a bumbling, unfamiliar side to the security agencies. 

The interview showed that two men, who are probably military agents, were working on the cheap. They failed to get themselves domesticated in the everyday life of their target country, as Soviet spies from the fictional Max Otto van Stierlitz to the real Anna Chapman have traditionally done. Even worse, they had no cover story for the version of their life in Russia—no friends, neighbors, classmates, or colleagues to stand up their story. 

Signs of operational negligence have emerged everywhere, most strikingly in the way the military intelligence service, the GRU, has incriminated itself by having issued passports with almost identical numbers. This has become the story, rather than some discrepancies in the British version of events. 

Even young, contemporary-minded Russians have come to believe by default that their intelligence services are the elite, the cream of the crop. So, by extension, this botched operation sends the message that the country is being very badly governed.

But this perception is based on a false premise. In reality, the intelligence services are not the cream of Russia’s crop and haven’t been so for some time. The military and national security agencies are often the main modernizers in developing societies when the survival of the state is at stake. Looking back into history, the military has been the elite in Turkey, the Arab world, Latin America, and East and Southeast Asia. In Russia, this was the case under Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Alexander I, when only the army was “European.” But that epoch has long gone, and so has the Soviet era, where work in any government agency that provided access to the world beyond the Iron Curtain had many privileges.

Today, Russia’s modernizing class is located elsewhere: in IT companies, financial institutions, law firms, construction enterprises, aerospace corporations, and petrochemical companies. It is they, not the spying agencies, which attract the brightest and the best. 

Of course, the special services are still formidable in the age of Putin, but they are no longer the elite they were in Soviet days. After all, any trip abroad, even an undercover one, was a huge privilege for a Soviet citizen, but is something that most Russians can now enjoy with far less bother.

Another question that members of the Russian public are asking about the Skripal case is why was the spy targeted in the first place? After all, the attempted assassination took place at a moment when the entire world was watching Russia with mistrust. It was just before a presidential election with an incumbent whose legitimacy was being questioned due to lack of real competition, in a country hit by Western sanctions, in the midst of a standoff with almost the entire U.S. political establishment, in what is essentially a new Cold War. Why, in those circumstances, would Russia kill a convicted traitor who has already been traded away and who has already revealed all the secrets he was going to disclose? 

This certainly does not make sense if you view the poisoning of Skripal from the standpoint of public relations and the global image of the Russian state. But it is much more logical if you consider the viewpoint of the beleaguered security services that still want to be relevant in modern Russia. 

Russia’s political regime has one overriding objective: to survive in the face of external pressure in a situation of conflict that was all but forgotten. One of the ways in which this pressure is manifested is in an onslaught of attempts to recruit the many Russians who have access to secret information.

Recruitment and intelligence gathering are normal practice in relations between countries, but intensify greatly when a relationship deteriorates to being purely adversarial, as it is between Russia and the West. Russian officials have begun to publicly voice their indignation about this. “Attempts at recruitment, accompanied by blackmail and threats, are not a rarity in other countries as well, not just in the United States,” warned Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a recent interview. In a press conference on the results of Russian diplomacy in 2016, he outlined different cases where the United States had tried to recruit senior-level Russian diplomats, such as the second-in-command at the Russian embassy. In one instance, he said, when a diplomat went to pick up a prescription, someone slipped a large wad of cash into his car.

It seems that, in response to the global threat that they perceive from Russia, Western intelligence services are boosting their efforts at recruitment to near–Cold War levels. The reaction of their Russian counterparts is to prioritize winning the recruitment war over “doing no harm” to Russia’s image abroad.

Compared to the Cold War epoch, working for the security services has lost most of its attraction. What can the government offer would-be national security officers other than promotions, social benefits, and relatively high salaries, which are still modest compared to those on offer in big business? 

What’s more, post-Soviet Russia is now part of the global information space, and its borders are basically open. In the old days it was easy to keep track of those rare occurrences when Soviet citizens made contact with foreigners. Nowadays those contacts are too numerous to track.

All this makes the guardians of Russia’s secrets extremely nervous and twitchy. It was precisely in this spirit that General Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard, recently—and notoriously—complained that he could not do his job properly, unless someone put an end to the attacks by opposition leader Alexei Navalny which were corrupting his men (and which he hinted were inspired from abroad). 

Zolotov was more or less suggesting that because the state could not handle the situation, he had to get personally involved and challenge Navalny to a duel. In similar fashion, the intelligence services may have been guided by their own corporate mission, deeming it more important than Russia’s international reputation—and they might argue that their mission was not a complete failure in the end, either.  

Political calculations are always made within a larger objective. For the Russian elite, that objective cannot be to come across to the world as squeaky clean. That is as beyond their grasp as it was for Pushkin’s villain in verse Boris Godunov, the ultimate royal schemer who says out loud that whoever in Russia dies he will get the blame for the murder. 

The ultimate objective of Russia’s security services today is to hold their own in a desperate struggle with an economically and technologically superior Western adversary, which is able to casually slip $10,000 into the minister-counselor’s car. This means that anyone who breaks the bond of trust must learn the deadly price of their actions. They overlook the fact that tactics of this sort are likely only to tighten the grip on Russia through increased sanctions and an even fiercer battle.

  • Alexander Baunov