Twice in the past week, the swagger and malevolent intent of Russia's President Vladimir Putin have been on display. Investigators have revealed that Russia sent teams of military intelligence officers abroad in efforts to do harm: in one case by assassination, in the other by cyberhacking. This is how Putin bullies and intimidates his perceived enemies.
In March, the former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, living in Salisbury, England, and his daughter, survived a poisoning attempt with a Soviet-era nerve agent known as Novichok. Russia had denied responsibility for the attack, but on Wednesday, Putin openly denounced Skripal as a "traitor to the motherland." His acid remarks lend fresh credence to the charge by British authorities that the Kremlin tried to kill Skripal, who had provided secrets to Britain from the Russian military intelligence service known as the GRU. Skripal was arrested by Russia in 2004, convicted of treason, imprisoned, then released to Britain in a 2010 spy swap that included 10 Russian sleeper agents discovered in the United States.
But what made Putin's comment even more significant is evidence recently unearthed showing that Russia sent military intelligence officers to carry out the assassination attempt. British investigators identified two men responsible for the hit as "Alexander Petrov" and "Ruslan Boshirov," who entered Britain on March 2, left the poison on the door handle of the Skripal home, then discarded it in a perfume bottle and flew back to Moscow. The perfume bottle was later found in a trash bin, and the nerve agent killed a British woman, Dawn Sturgess, who sprayed it on her wrist.
When caught, Russia responded with lies and paper-thin coverup attempts. "There is nothing special there, nothing criminal, I assure you," Putin said. The two men appeared in a staged interview broadcast by Russia's RT television, saying they were fitness instructors making a weekend jaunt to Salisbury to see its famous cathedral spire. The London-based open-source investigative journalism outfit, Bellingcat, and its Russian partner, the Insider, reported that Ruslan Boshirov was actually Anatoly Chepiga, a highly decorated GRU colonel. The Post and others have confirmed the identification of him from residents of the village near the Chinese border where he grew up.
On top of all this came the revelations from Dutch, British and U.S. officials on Thursday that the GRU sent officers abroad on missions that included hacking into the international chemical weapons watchdog organization and the world anti-doping agency, both of which had probed Russian misbehavior, including the Skripal case and a state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The GRU hackers, you might recall, also meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. If asked, Putin will probably say they were just fitness instructors out for a stroll.
The West must be vigilant and resilient against his hired guns.
This editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.