MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public comment on a British judge’s sensational report that he probably approved a 2006 plan to kill a Russian dissident in London. Instead, his subordinates went before reporters and portrayed it as a groundless accusation concocted by a relentlessly hostile West.
Moscow apparently believes that Western leaders’ eagerness to stem the tide of Syrian refugees will make them hesitant to push Russia too strongly in the murder case, fearful of hindering peace talks on Syria that are scheduled to begin on Monday.
Russia’s reaction to Thursday’s report on the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko — a former security operative who became a fierce Kremlin critic — is a familiar one in the Putin era: a denial of any wrongdoing amid aggrieved contentions that foreign puppeteers are aiming to push Putin from power and weaken Russia.
In recent years, Russia has denied claims that it sent troops into eastern Ukraine to fight with rebels, that it supplied a missile that shot down a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, and that its warplanes were bombing Syrian civilians and supporting the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The tactic works well at home, feeding Russians’ strong appetite for perceiving their nation as ever besieged. This kind of appeal has helped keep Putin’s personal approval ratings high even as the economy deteriorated sharply in the past two years.
In the West, it only reinforces Russia’s image as truculent and obstructive. A series of sanctions were imposed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine, and Moscow’s relations with Washington and many European countries are at best strongly troubled.
But Russia also has wedges it can employ with the Western world, particularly regarding Syria.
Assad is Moscow’s longtime ally, and Russia can wield more influence with him than the countries that overtly seek his ouster. Despite occasional signs that Russia is less than fully comfortable with Assad, it firmly resists making regime change a mandatory condition for ending the civil war.
Russia also is a key factor on the Syrian battlefield, launching thousands of airstrikes since late September. Although claims differ sharply on how hard those airstrikes are hurting the Islamic State group and other extremists, the sheer demonstration of military might means the West cannot afford to alienate Russia.
Moscow, in turn, would not want to push disagreements with the West too far; it needs a resolution in Syria in order to retain its only military base in the Middle East and also to suppress Islamic militants who Moscow fears have their eyes on Russia.
In that light, it appears that the British judge’s allegations in the Litvinenko case may have little — if any — blowback.
“If U.S. and British political circles remain interested in joint efforts with Russia in the struggle against international terrorism, the Litvinenko case will soon be forgotten,” Andrei Kilmov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the state news agency ITAR-Tass on Friday.
Even as Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would toughen its stance with Russia in the wake of the Litvinenko findings, he acknowledged that London needs Moscow. “Do we at some level have to go on having some sort of relationship with them because we need a solution to the Syria crisis? Yes, we do — but we do it with clear eyes and a very cold heart,” he said.
One analyst cast doubt on that strategy.
“That may not be sensible because the U.K.’s influence on what Russia does in Syria is minimal,” said Keir Giles, a Russian analyst at Britain’s Chatham House institute.
After the report by Judge Robert Owen came out, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it could “further poison the atmosphere of our bilateral relations.” But Russia has not announced any retaliatory measures.
“I am sad to say relations have already been frigid for a long time,” said Viktor Ivanov, a Putin ally who heads Russia’s anti-narcotics agency. Litvinenko’s claim of Ivanov’s ties to organized crime was mentioned in the report as a possible reason Moscow may have wanted the dissident eliminated.
Russia has another interest in preventing relations with the West from worsening: the conflict in Ukraine. Although fighting there has diminished notably in recent months, the tensions between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed rebels remain unresolved. In addition, Western sanctions connected to the conflict are still in force, and those are contributing factors in Russia’s economic troubles.
Moscow recently has shown heightened interest in bringing about a resolution, appointing influential Putin ally Boris Gryzlov as an envoy to the group trying to implement a solution.
Russian officials indicate that the strategy for dealing with the Litvinenko allegations will be to hew tightly to denials and hope the controversy will go away.
“I want to say that this is not news that is discussed widely in Russia,” Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev said in an interview on Friday at the international economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.