On Putin’s case

In its September 2009 number GQ carried an interesting article by Scott Anderson on the September 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that left hundreds dead and led to Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. The piece profiled former Russian FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin and collected evidence suggesting that the bombings were perpetrated by the FSB rather than by Chechen terrorists.

It was the kind of intriguing investigative piece that most publications would have featured prominently, but GQ buried it. Purchasing a copy of the magazine, I first spent several minutes trying to find the issue’s table of contents (I gave up), and then the article itself, afraid I’d blown $4.50 on the wrong issue of the magazine. I found the article at page 246 of the September issue. NPR explained the mystery behind GQ’s treatment of the story.

I had wondered about the story over the years. In his most recent book, David Satter — the scrupulous former Financial Times Moscow correspondent — turned his attention to the subject in The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep (now available in paperback). I read the book and found it excellent. Indeed, I recommend it to Power Line readers.

Satter’s National Review article “The unsolved mystery behind the act of terror that brought Vladimir Putin to power” provides a good summary. David Pryce-Jones reviewed the book for National Review in “Russia moves toward a reckoning.”

You may recall that Putin had Satter banned from Russia in December 2013. Satter is therefore the first American journalist to be accorded the expulsion treatment since the fall of the Soviet Union. Satter now holds appointments as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published Satter’s insightful column (behind the Journal’s paywall) on the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain. Satter addresses the question of culpability, which I attributed to Putin based on the circumstantial evidence as well as Putin’s contemptuous response to Prime Minister May’s demand for an explanation. Satter adds this:

In the Skripal case, the Russians are eager to take credit. Kirill Kleimenov, an anchor on the official government station Channel One, observed that traitors rarely live to a “ripe old age” and advised them: “Don’t choose Britain as a place to live.” Against the background of furious denials on the rest of Russian state-controlled television, this was, in the lexicon of the Russian security services, a “direct hint” that the attack on Mr. Skripal was an official act.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokesman, responded to a demand for answers by saying that Britain should not “threaten a nuclear power.” That suggests a dual motive for the attack: It was undertaken to murder a former double agent and to assert Russian power and defiance of Western efforts to restrain Moscow’s lawlessness.

The Skripal attack is also a sign that Russia has expanded the category of persons targeted for murder. Mr. Skripal was one of four double agents Russia released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian spies in the U.S. Since the first spy swap in 1962—when KGB Col. Rudolf Abel was exchanged for Capt. Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union—it has been understood that swapped spies are not subject to retribution.

Today comes word that President Trump has congratulated Putin on his reelection. Here is the White House readout of the call:

President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The two leaders discussed the state of bilateral relations and resolved to continue dialogue about mutual national security priorities and challenges. President Trump congratulated President Putin on his March 18 re-election, and emphasized the importance of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. The two leaders confirmed the need for the United States and Russia to continue our shared efforts on strategic stability.

President Obama earned Putin’s royal contempt many times over. I can only hope that President Trump had more to say than is intimated in the readout.