The version of events presented by the two Russians wanted for the nerve agent attack on Salisbury is ridiculous. It has understandably become an international point of mockery.
In the words of James Morris, the former Downing Street pollster, one line of excuse being pushed is genuinely now that “a couple of Russian gay steroid dealers flew from Moscow to the UK to see Salisbury cathedral twice (because Stonehenge was closed)”. As others have pointed out, supposedly these two born-and-bred Russians were deterred from their sight-seeing in Salisbury because of a smattering of icy slush, a weather condition which apparently they have little experience of.
So why concoct such an obviously farcical line? Surely, Putinists and the terminally gullible argue, a murderous spy agency, acting on behalf of a hostile foreign power, would come up with a better cover story than this?
The existence of that argument partially answers itself. The Kremlin knows full well that there are various useful idiots in the West who will willingly regurgitate any message they put out. And put it out they did, choosing their own propaganda station Russia Today as a conveniently unquestioning outlet: more an instance of a press office releasing their organisation’s own line than a media outlet securing a scoop.
As we’ve recounted before on this site, there is a bizarre fringe in the UK – some of it, shamefully, on the right – which has either fallen hook, line and sinker for the disinformation distributed by Russia Today, Sputnik et al, or which finds it ideologically convenient to align itself with Putinism. That phenomenon is both obscene and ridiculous, producing Brits willing to credit and recite the most incredible and absurd spin, rather than accept the proven reality of Russia’s aggression and hostility towards their own country and fellow citizens.
Some of those people have dutifully taken up the cudgels on behalf of the Salisbury suspects, and are contorting themselves into increasingly disgraceful positions in public. But that’s a side benefit for the Kremlin of putting out this charade – the cherry on top of a particularly toxic cake.
The real audience for all this is domestic to Russia. Why would Putin and his colleagues produce such a transparently made up version of events? To demonstrate to their own people that they can do so and get away with it.
They know – or believe they know from past appeasement – that this murderous attack on British soil will go essentially unavenged, and so they take the opportunity to make a public pantomime of the assassins’ defence, a nudge-nudge, wink-wink demonstration to their support base at home that they can attack a NATO member, get away with it, and not even have to seriously pretend deniability.
Is it laughable? Of course. Does it mean the GRU and other Russian agencies are a joke? Not at all. Don’t interpret this account as proof that they are incompetent; rather it signifies that they simply don’t care that we know it is false – and they want to parade that they don’t care.
This isn’t the first example of this attitude. It was exhibited in the apparently lax control of the poisons used in this case and in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Splashing a radioactive isotope around London, or leaving a bottle of nerve agent in a park, isn’t a sign that the assassins were amateurs, but that they are not bothered who else might get hurt, and they believe they can act with impunity on British soil.
It falls to the Government, and to our allies, to disabuse them of that belief.