Assassinations carried out in foreign lands can chill dissent, offsetting their costs.
There are people who cannot take a win. Khabib Nurmagomedov is one. On Saturday night, Nurmagomedov, a Dagestani-Russian mixed martial artist, dismantled the defences of his Irish opponent Conor McGregor to retain his UFC lightweight belt, and improve his record to a remarkable 27 wins against no losses. The two fighters have had a long-running feud, and Nurmagomedov answered all McGregor’s trash talk in style within the ring. But that was not enough. Normally an immaculate professional, he turned the event into a WWE-style spectacle by leaping over the cage and launching a flying kick at McGregor’s coach, leading to the presentation of the championship belt and interviews with the fighters being cancelled.
Vladimir Putin appears not to be able to take a win, either. Sergei Skripal was a Russian military intelligence officer who became a double agent working for the UK’s MI6 agency. He was caught, imprisoned, and eventually traded for Russian spies exposed in the United States. It was a good deal for Russia, since they got ten agents in the prisoner exchange while giving up just four. Skripal settled in the United Kingdom, and Vladimir Putin could easily have left him to live out his lonely life in Salisbury.
Instead, Russia sent two agents to poison Skripal with a nerve agent called Novichok. Skripal survived, as did his daughter who was also exposed to the Novichok, and British police detected Russia’s pawprints all over the bungled poisoning attempt. When Russia trotted out its usual denial, the British authorities published photographs of the two assassins. In response, the Russians allowed the two suspects to be interviewed by the RT network, where they claimed they were just two ordinary tourists. Why two tourists would fly into London, visit Salisbury on successive days, walk along a path taking them away from the main tourist area, and then fly straight out, was inadequately explained. I’ve been to Salisbury. The spire of its famous cathedral is impressive, but a single visit suffices even for lovers of Gothic architecture. Nobody makes two day trips to Salisbury as part of a three-day itinerary in the UK.
In late September, the website Bellingcat exposed one of the two Skripal suspects as Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU. On October 8, Bellingcat extended its sensational scoop by identifying Chepiga’s colleague as Dr Alexander Mishkin, also a GRU officer. Last week, the Netherlands and UK publicised another GRU operation, an attempt to hack into the world’s chemical weapons watchdog the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Following up on personal details of the agents revealed by the Dutch, Bellingcat hit upon a list of 305 individuals with cars registered to the same address, apparently the headquarters of Military Unit 26165 in Moscow.
How could a relatively resource-poor investigative website scrape the web for so much information about Russian secret service officers? And how much more had well-funded state intelligence units managed to glean? Perhaps GRU should hire the artist Banksy as a consultant. He has been creating street art in England from the 1990s, and has also made a few works abroad as his fame spread. Through that period, metropolitan public spaces have gradually become infested with cameras, and yet there has been no definitive identification of the guerrilla artist called Banksy. It isn’t even clear if he is one individual or a collective. Last week, Banksy pulled a marvellous stunt at a Sotheby’s auction. One of his beloved images, Girl with Balloon, was among the lots at the sale, and after the hammer went down on a winning bid of $1.4 million, the painting self-destructed. Years previously, as Banksy explained in an Instagram post, he had embedded a paper shredder within the frame, to be activated in case the painting was auctioned.
In the topsy-turvy world of art, the public shredding has only increased the value of Girl With Balloon. The buyer must be overjoyed at the painting’s destruction, and Sotheby’s might be considering ways to retain the work. A similar rise in market value may well result from Khabib Nurmagomedov’s stunt. Turning himself into a pantomime villain could prove more lucrative than merely being the best fighter in history in his weight class. In this light, it is worth considering if there’s any benefit that might accrue to Russia from the blunders of its secret agents?
Certainly, it is one way to put opponents on notice that they are not safe anywhere in the world. It’s a message a number of authoritarian regimes are sending out. Last week, Saudi assassins apparently killed the dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi had gone to receive a document that would allow him to marry his Turkish fiancée. The Saudis deny the murder, but claim they can’t provide footage of Khashoggi leaving the building because cameras in the consulate were malfunctioning on the day he visited.
Khashoggi wasn’t much more of a threat to the Saudi regime than Skripal was to the Russian one. Murdering him seems like a crazily disproportionate and illogical response, like launching a flying kick at an opponent’s coach after a fight. The only way it can be rationalised is by theorising that today’s authoritarian regimes want to be seen as crazily vindictive, capable of going to any lengths for retribution, risking substantial international sanctions for trivial vendettas. The chilling effect this could have on dissent within and outside these nations might offset the practical costs of carrying out state-sponsored assassinations in foreign lands.