Russian tactics Don't be fooled by Putin and his KGB playbook

Some Germans have defended Moscow over the spy spat, but they should see it in the context of the Kremlin's strategy of lies, confusion and sowing distrust, writes Handelsblatt's international correspondent.
Watching me, watching you.

After the expulsion of a slew of Russian diplomats by western governments, some people are making excuses for Moscow. They argue that there’s no clear proof about who poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, in what allegedly marked the first use of chemical weapons in Europe. They say the West’s reaction was overly hasty, and what we really need is a constructive dialogue with Russia.

You’ll notice that it’s always the same people who line up to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin. They’re almost always politicians whose roots go way back with Russia, or who are personally aligned with Russian organizations.

Those folks were pretty quiet even when Russia’s parliament, itself elected under questionable circumstances, allowed government outposts to kill Russian “defectors” who flee abroad – naturally without prosecution. They also stayed silent when the Kremlin’s boss, Mr. Putin, called double agents "traitors who should die. They have betrayed their friends and their brothers in arms. Whatever they earned for that, they’ll choke on it.”

In the last couple of years alone, 14 defectors have died under mysterious circumstances. Mr. Skripal, who used to work for Russia’s secret service, the GRU, was exchanged by Russia for one of their own agents in the United States.

After 130 Russian diplomats were expelled by 15 European countries and the US, some say proof is still needed that Russia is guilty. They should bear in mind how the Kremlin deals with investigations. British judges have spent several years looking into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. A former FSB spy who criticized Putin’s cronies for corruption, Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned in London with radioactive polonium smuggled from Russia through Germany.

Expelling diplomats is quite a tame response to the use of chemical weapons.

British judges suspect a former secret service officer, Andrey Lugovoy, of the crime. But Russia hasn’t sent him to London for trial as they requested. Instead, he’s been elected to the Duma as a member of the LDPR, a populist party on the right. In 2015, Mr. Putin even gave him a medal for services to his country. And as a lawmaker, Mr. Lugovoy keeps on proposing questionable legislation, such as allowing the closure of websites critical of the government.

Just as in the case of Mr. Litvinenko’s murder, the Kremlin denies it was behind the chemical attack on Mr. Skripal. Now, Russia is accusing the West of a propaganda war, claiming that it was not behind internet manipulation and cyber attacks on the West. The Kremlin’s boss downplayed hackers as “artists“ who “paint” whenever they feel like it.

Lies, cover-ups, sowing dissent, dividing opponents, laying false trails and pulling skeptics over to his side – that’s Moscow’s approach, which it pursues through hacking the internet or killing defectors. It’s textbook KGB stuff, although what is new is the support for sinister anti-European parties to break up the European Union.

Sure, the West’s actions shouldn’t be guided by mere suspicion. Nor should the West be guided by smoke and mirrors or targeted attempts to divide it, undermine its democratic models and do the business of autocrats. The West must be determined and united in protecting its democratic values and the principle of freedom. In that context, expelling diplomats is quite a tame response to the first use of chemical weapons – of Soviet manufacture, and which Russia was long obliged to destroy.

Russia now claims to be responding, by returning the same number of western diplomats. But that’s a lie, too. Moscow forced 23 British diplomats to pack their bags after the UK sent 23 Russian diplomats back. But the Kremlin also called for the closure of the British consulate in St. Petersburg as well as the British council, a cultural institute. The West shouldn’t stand for any tougher measures from Moscow.

No one has any interest in a new spiral of escalation. But coordinated action is needed to defend freedom and democracy. It is crucial to reject every each attempt by Mr. Putin to poison our community of values, whether by attacking his former people in the West, redrawing borders or disrupting western elections.

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