(CNN)“It doesn’t matter. We won.”
But they set the tone for this year’s spate of attempted assassinations or failed abductions — and, possibly, a new era of impunity.
Be it on a door handle in Salisbury, England, or inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the degree to which these gruesome and unprecedented possible crimes are bungled or purposefully clumsy has become less relevant. The essential message is the same: We don’t really care if we get caught.
In Salisbury, you can buy one of two narratives: that Russia’s GRU is devastatingly naïve, arrogant and unaware of the ubiquitous amount of CCTV in Britain. Or of how much the West knows of its rare and complex nerve agents like Novichok. Or of how relatively easy it is for experienced-yet-amateur sleuths to find GRU agents through their open-source medal pages.
Or, instead, you see the clumsiness as the message. Whether their attack actually murdered former Russian agent Sergei Skripal or not, it doesn’t matter. They won. Russia managed to get a weapons-grade nerve agent into the UK, deploy it and have its agents leave. Russia has denied trying to kill Mr Skripal and his daughter.
The consequences: some more diplomatic expulsions, some more financial sanctions. It was an extraordinary display of one resurgent power’s callous reach and outsized boldness.
After invading Ukraine (twice), changing the course of the war in Syria and tampering with the US elections in 2016, Moscow has a head of steam on it.
If you recall how former KGB agent Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, it’s not a wild leap to conclude the isolation of sanctions and castigation of Russia by the West are not cost, but benefit.
It enhances the “them and us” feel the Kremlin feeds with its state media. And the West now knows Russia just gets out of bed and then does what it feels like, unrestrained.
The field trip of Russian “tourists” to The Hague, who Dutch intelligence convincingly proved were GRU officers seeking to hack the chemical weapons inspectors the OPCW, is another brazen extension of that.
They walked through Schipol airport with Russian diplomatic passports, bought a huge battery to power their hacking devices and even carried taxi receipts from their GRU headquarters with them.
The KGB was once a formidable enemy to the West. These guys can’t even be bothered to empty their pockets.
The broad conclusion remains that Moscow simply wasn’t that fussed if it was all traced back to them. It might have simply said: “Look at what we will do, and what you don’t do back to us.”
So it might be yet more naïve still to think that a key Middle Eastern ally of the United States would feel particularly restrained right now, were it to decide to remove a troublesome journalist from its orbit.
Riyadh has jailed female activists who supported women driving, perversely just as it let women drive. It has used US-made weaponry and targeting to bomb civilians in Yemen repeatedly, and by its own accounts, mostly accidentally.
It has kidnapped and detained the prime minister of another country. So weigh up for yourself the decision process that perhaps surrounded the reported killing of Khashoggi.
President Trump calls the media the “enemy of the people,” providing actual physical human targets for his supporters as he weaponizes information.
President Erdogan of Turkey — whose jails contain, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the global record per capita of journalists — said six days after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate, that another journalist — whose reports on Turkey allegedly arming Syrian Islamists he did not like — would “pay a high price.”
In this climate, if you consider Mohammed Bin Salman responsible, you can you see why, at the peak of his expanding powers and flushed with the Napoleonic confidence of his early 30s, he might think that Khashoggi’s disappearance one Tuesday would not register. The tactics themselves show scant regard for deniability.
Fifteen Saudis, suspected to be officials, are dispatched on private planes. They come and go right around the disappearance of Khashoggi and are tracked in blatantly menacing black vans coming and going to the consulate.
This is the polar opposite of deniability. Separate commercial flights, European fake passports, baseball caps to hide from CCTV, and an assassination made to look like a heart attack in a hotel room bought Israel slightly more deniability in 2010 when it allegedly killed a Hamas leader. And they were still caught. Eight years later, Riyadh seems also to have got out of bed and just done it.
We have now had the distasteful scene of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heading to Riyadh to hear its explanation, as leaks hint the Saudis may be edging toward saying this was an abduction gone wrong.
If this does become Riyadh’s new line — a stark reversal of the flat denial issued by the Saudi King to President Trump hours earlier — we should not kid ourselves it is an “explanation.” It amounts to a confession. You don’t need 15 Saudis — reportedly including a chief forensic scientist — to question and extradite someone.
The most generous explanation based on the evidence is that the Saudis likely intended to cause Khashoggi considerable harm, and entertained a rugby team’s worth of suspected security officials might end up killing him.
Yet, so far, the reaction has been outrage from the media and from corporate America, whose share price has no immunity when these apparent acts of impunity are called out.
Davos in the Desert may be deserted, indeed. Yet while President Trump has pledged “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is deemed behind this, he was among the first to float the “rogue killers” excuse that is gaining currency.
Washington, for decades addicted to the stream of petrodollars that Saudi pumps into its body politic, is keenly looking for a neat ribbon with which they can tie this up, and drop it in the ocean.
The lesson Trump is teaching globally is not that America is respected again, but that it will only act — perhaps — if it’s own citizens are threatened, its own direct interests harmed. It no longer claims global leadership by example or action.
That vacuum is being filled by acts of reckless impunity, as aspirant powers seek to define their new place in the shifting order. Caught at it? Lied about it? Bungled it? Condemned for it?
“It doesn’t matter. We won.”
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