Putin and the use­ful­ness of a lie

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE AP­PLE­BAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

They were, they de­clared, just tourists. Alexan­der Petrov and Rus­lan Boshi­rov — iden­ti­fied by Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties as the Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agents who poi­soned four peo­ple in the English town of Sal­is­bury — were sim­ply on va­ca­tion: “Our friends had been sug­gest­ing for some time that we visit this won­der­ful town.”

Sweat­ing, ner­vous, thug­gishly coiffed and wear­ing sim­i­lar sweaters, this is what Petrov and Boshi­rov (not their real names, say the Bri­tish) told Mar­garita Si­monyan, the ed­i­tor in chief of the pro­pa­ganda chan­nel RT (for­merly Rus­sia To­day): Yes, they are the men in the videos and pho­to­graphs pro­duced by Bri­tish po­lice. Yes, they were in Sal­is­bury at the time of the attack on Sergei Skri­pal, a for­mer Rus­sian spy, and his daugh­ter. But no, they knew noth­ing of the Skri­pals or their house. “I wish some­body told us where it was,” said Petrov. “Maybe we passed it, or maybe we didn’t,” said Boshi­rov.

The two men of­fered a rea­son for their visit: “They have a fa­mous cathe­dral there, Sal­is­bury Cathe­dral. It’s fa­mous through­out Europe and, in fact, through­out the world, I think. It’s fa­mous for its 123-me­ter spire.” In­spired, as it were, by the 123-me­ter spire (a statis­tic avail­able in the sec­ond para­graph of the Sal­is­bury Cathe­dral Wikipedia page), they went to Sal­is­bury twice. On the first at­tempt — the Bri­tish say this was a re­con­nais­sance mis­sion — the two men stayed only an hour and didn’t man­age to walk the few hun­dred yards from the train sta­tion to the cathe­dral be­cause of the ter­ri­ble snow and slush. (Pic­tures from the day show the streets were clear.) On the sec­ond at­tempt — the day Novi­chok, a pow­er­ful nerve agent, was sprayed on Skri­pal’s front door — they say they made it to the cathe­dral, even though they were pho­tographed walk­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Their mem­o­ries of this Gothic mas­ter­piece were not very de­tailed. “There are lots of tourists,” said Boshi­rov, “lots of Rus­sian tourists.”

Si­monyan tried, al­beit not very hard, to make the in­ter­view seem gen­uine. She asked why they spent so much time to­gether, in­sin­u­at­ing that per­haps they were gay. She asked where they worked (“fit­ness in­dus­try . . . Sup­ple­ments for ath­letes, vi­ta­mins”) and was sorry that they couldn’t give any de­tails (“I just don’t want this story to af­fect our clients”). She did her luke­warm best to make it seem com­pletely nor­mal to fly to Bri­tain from Moscow, stay in dis­tant east Lon­don, leave traces of deadly poi­son in the ho­tel room, travel across town not once but twice to get the train to Sal­is­bury, west of Lon­don — and then to high-tail it straight back home from Gatwick Air­port.

Why did she bother? Or, more ac­cu­rately: Why was she told to bother? Be­cause the pro­duc­tion of bla­tant lies is use­ful. Although many in Bri­tain mocked the in­ter­view (play­ing along, the @Sal­is­buryCath ac­count tweeted a lovely pho­to­graph of its “123-me­ter spire”), far-left ac­tivists and con­spir­acy the­o­rists have al­ready seized on it, picked it apart and found enough shreds of “ev­i­dence” to keep their ar­gu­ments go­ing. Pro-Rus­sian busi­ness­peo­ple, politi­cians and colum­nists who want to stop fur­ther sanc­tions will find some­thing in it, too. Some will surely de­clare that this whole thing is so ab­surd, we’ll never know what re­ally hap­pened and we should just for­get about it.

This type of tac­tic has a his­tory. At the time of the in­va­sion of Crimea, Vladimir Putin in­sisted that the Rus­sian troops march­ing across the penin­sula were lo­cals who had picked up their army equip­ment in “mil­i­tary sur­plus shops.” Ab­surd though it was, that lie was just plau­si­ble enough to muddy the wa­ters. Re­mem­ber, talk shows at the time were de­bat­ing “Is this an in­va­sion?” rather than “What are we go­ing to do about it?” That worked for Rus­sia — and also for those in the West who wanted to do noth­ing. The same will be true of this story. Rus­sian money mat­ters, not just in Lon­don but in Berlin, Paris and far­ther afield. Those who de­pend on it will hap­pily lap up the hol­i­day tales of Boshi­rov and Petrov as an ex­cuse to ig­nore their crimes, post­pone sanc­tions and change the sub­ject.

There could be other ex­pla­na­tions for this per­for­mance as well. The sheer ef­fron­tery of the in­ter­view, like the ef­fron­tery of this attack, sends a mes­sage: We don’t care what any of you think. If we want to kill Rus­sians in Bri­tain, we will. And if we want to turn this into a farce, we’ll do that, too. It was Putin him­self who de­clared that the state had iden­ti­fied the two men (“or­di­nary civil­ians”) and who called for them to be in­ter­viewed. While we were laugh­ing at the in­com­pe­tent hit men, he was surely laugh­ing at the Bri­tish, and the West more broadly, who have proved com­pletely in­ca­pable of stop­ping them.

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