On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that the two GRU intelligence service officers who tried to assassinate Sergei Skripal on U.K. soil this March are actually GRU intelligence officers at all.
Putin says the men are actually "civilians," who, "he hopes," will publicly share their story of innocence.
He is telling the truth in only one narrow sense: The two men, named by Britain as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, will come forward very soon to speak publicly to Putin-friendly elements of the Russian press. They just won't come forward with truth.
Instead, they'll come forward with a quickly sculpted wilderness of mirrors and lies.
Putin needs to give the GRU and other organs of the Russian state — including its propaganda teams — time to develop a cover story about why the two men were in the U.K. during the Skripal assassination attempt, and what supposed careers they hold in Russia. That work is already underway, and will probably be done by the end of this week to Putin's satisfaction.
Then, we'll see the release of a composition far less inspiring than the works of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov. The Russians will concoct a story suggesting that the two men were on vacation in Britain, and perhaps even that they had good reason to be in Salisbury, where the Skripals were attacked. (Perhaps they just really, really like the steaks?)
Putin's teams will also produce witness testimony and employment records suggesting that Petrov and Boshirov had been employed in various harmless civilian jobs in Russia (garbage collectors, perhaps?) and not at GRU headquarters. The central motive here will be to present Petrov and Boshirov as two innocent men who are being slandered a British government desperate to scapegoat the Kremlin.
Russia knows its upcoming propaganda creation will be regarded by most observers for what it is — a ludicrous masterpiece of absurdity without any trace of credibility. But Putin doesn't care about that. The Russian president and former KGB colonel only cares about two broader objectives. First, he wants to use this propaganda to muddy the waters just enough to win sympathy from a few useful idiots in the West. Second, Putin wants to throw crumbs to those Western politicians who want and need an excuse to resist imposing new sanctions on Russia or Russian officials in response to this attack. The special focus here is in pushing the Austrian and Italian governments to obstruct broader European Union efforts to agree to common sanctions.
Still, there's no question that it is Putin who is most off-balance. The Russian leader is angry and embarrassed by the fact that the GRU's Skripal operation failed so spectacularly. Not only did Skripal and his daughter Yulia survive the assassination attempt, but Petrov and Boshirov also allowed their Novichok-class nerve agent dispersal device (a fake perfume bottle) to be discovered.
Even worse, they allowed the device to kill an innocent woman after she sprayed what she thought was perfume on her hands. Putin knows that callousness has infuriated the British government: Innocent British citizens have had their neural pathways interrupted and have thus suffered a brutal and painful death.
It's even worse than all that because the Russian strike team also allowed themselves to be caught on camera hundreds of times as they strolled around Britain. Oh, and prior to the attack, Petrov and Boshirov messed around with the Novichok in a non-contained environment, which allowed trace detection by British authorities in various places. These trace detections correlate perfectly with the CCTV video footage in the same areas the two men visited. In short, the GRU broke just about every intelligence tradecraft rule concerning deniable operations on the soil of a hostile adversary that retains high-capability counterintelligence services.
Putin is trying to clean up his mess as best he can. But the U.S. and its allies shouldn't let him. Putin's aggression should be countermanded by new sanctions on the Russian energy-export sector, which will make Europe safer and Putin weaker.