In From Russia With Love, Kronsteen, the Soviet chessmaster-come-spymaster, says that his plot to kill James Bond will succeed because “I’ve anticipated every possible variation of countermove”. The image is a Russian stereotype. Chess is up there with snow, onion domes and vodka – and with reason. The country produces brilliant chess players: Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik. Its status in Russia provided Garry Kasparov with his launching pad for politics.
Here in Britain we tend to attribute Kronsteen-type capabilities to Russia’s secret services and, sometimes, to its leaders. So it is that Vladimir Putin can be thought of as the Anatoly Karpov of politics – Karpov being the Russian maestro sometimes known as “boa constrictor” for the way he squeezed the playing life out of his opponents on the chess board: “he played without taking many risks, and without making many mistakes. He waited for his opponents to make the slightest inaccuracy and then grinded them to dust”. Meet Putin the grandmaster; Vladimir the snake.
The attempted murders in Salisbury have come to be seen in this Ian Fleming-type light. Russia is testing our defences. Russia is escalating a new Cold War. Russia is exploiting the Brexit vote. Russia has calibrated our response. All of this may be true. So may another version of events, which this site hesitantly offers up: Russia has messed up.
This take on recent events begins with the Russian state deciding, for whatever reason, to murder Sergei Skripal with a chemical weapon. The thinking of the planners was that Russia had got away, pretty much, with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and others, and would thus get away, more or less, with the murder of Skripal and anyone else at hand. But they miscalculated. Twenty-three Russian spies will be expelled from Britain. Assets will be seized. Some Russians in Britain may be prosecuted. London will become a little less pleasant for Putin’s friends. The United States, France and Germany have lined up behind Theresa May.
As we have previously pointed out, Putin can live with all this. But it may be unwelcome none the less. And Russia’s newly reappointed, sorry, re-elected President may now want tensions to ease rather than intensify. None the less, he finds himself in a situation he cannot entirely control, with little alternative but to bluff it out, seek to muddy the waters…and hope that the fuss dies down as soon as possible. (That last sentiment will be shared by more than a few Ministers here.)
We cheerfully admit that we have no evidence whatsoever for this take on the Salisbury incident. Then again, neither has almost anyone else for theirs. But whatever the truth may be, one thing is certain: people mess up. ConservativeHome does. So do you, dear reader. So does Theresa May, goodness knows. And so, too, does our modern-day Kronsteen in the Kremlin – just like the original. Don’t rule out the possibility that he or others may have done so in this case.