The photos of the two Russian operators caught by British CCTV show a couple of guys straight out of Central Casting for the roles of Thug #1 and Thug #2. The fact is that both “gentlemen” were chosen because they looked like the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Eastern European workers that are now seen daily in construction work and other laboring jobs throughout Britain. They looked tough because they were tough. They did what they were trained and ordered to do. If they had been captured they would have withstood known British interrogation methods or simply taken the L (lethal) tablets with which most official assassins are supplied. One can quibble over their method and technique, but the end result was failure. To be fair (and certainly we should be “fair”), it was not the operators’ fault, but really lousy planning. Heads will roll, but it won’t be the two “gunsels” heads. Higher level heads will be chopped – one way or another. There is more to this than the usual “bad guys going after former bad guys now living the good life in the West.”Of course neither one of these operators were civilians. PM Theresa May has clearly stated that she has been informed that they both were officers of GRU, the military wing of Russian covert intelligence. Interestingly, GRU is said to have several multiples of active foreign agents in comparison to its civilian international counterpart SVR RF. GRU also has expanded its activities into the highly important and technical role of cyber ops. It is worthwhile to note that the military element now runs the gamut of operations from the most traditional i.e. assassination, to the most advanced cyber attack. This implies a power on which there has been little comment or exploration. It also suggests a revamping of the power structure in Russian intelligence. The failure of the recent operation against Skripal (a traitor in Russian military terms) may have thrown this internal Russian power contest into a bit of confusion. More important, it may drive the Russian leadership into a frenzy.The first phase of this frenzy has been an excellently devised counter propaganda activity from Moscow that charges the British government has contrived this entire story so as to put Russia in a bad light. The proof, Moscow insists, is that London has not asked for Moscow’s assistance in this matter. You can’t say the Kremlin doesn’t know how to play imaginative defense. However, the real problem for Moscow and Putin is that the entire affair makes it appear that Vlad is not in as control of his secret intell services as it might be expected. The fact is that a man of Putin’s extensive intelligence background would never launch or approve as crude an operation as was the case with Skripal.
It looks like the GRU command took the initiative on its own. This puts the Russian Presidency and Vladimir Putin personally, in a far worse position than if he actually had okayed the operation. From an operational standpoint, this characterization simply makes Vlad seem an ambitious and irresponsible dictator who is not privy to the security activities of his own government. Furthermore, such delinquency indicates a breakdown in presidential control of his nation’s international strategic issues. This situation bears a close relationship to a bureaucratic coup run by the military–controlled intelligence organization GRU and its immediate chain of command, the Defense Ministry. The problem is that it all may be true!
As outrageous as this may appear, such a development has been noted as a potential over many years as Vladimir Putin has come to appear less and less involved with foreign military and intelligence decisions in the Middle East where Russian commitment and financial exposure have grown exponentially with little geopolitical benefit in return. The explanation that Russia’s dogged support of the Syrian regime ensures them naval ports and access to the Mediterranean is tactically a counterproductive move. The Syrian ports are mere targets for U.S. and allied missiles and any Russian naval force in the Med would be heavily outgunned by American and allied surface, air and underwater assets. If Donald Trump has suffered politically from the issue of his supposed friendship with Putin, the “special relationship” between the two men is viewed ambivalently at the very least by ambitious members of the Russian hierarchy, especially at the high levels of Russian military leadership.
Applying this same analysis to the Skripal matter, none of it works to the benefit of President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Russian civilian intelligence arms, domestic and foreign, may be dancing furiously, but it’s the far larger and politically powerful military-controlled GRU that really is calling the shots. Interestingly, rumors of Chinese unhappiness with Russian attempted involvement in the North Korean negotiations is traceable to Moscow’s military and political pressure to compete, at least in part, with Beijing’s role as principal intermediary. This has placed Putin at a disadvantage in his relationship with Xi Jinping and Vlad’s would-be political competitors within the military and security leadership know this.
Vladimir Putin has to make a move to regain full control of the Russian apparat. Washington and Beijing agree on this. Putin is a known quantity and his removal or even diminution of power is dangerous for everyone. Digging out of the Skripal mess is just the beginning.