One theory you can put aside is that last week’s attempted nerve-gas murder of a retired Russian spy in Britain was planned by someone looking to discredit and undermine Vladimir Putin.
Since the original sin of the Putin era—the apartment-block bombings in 1999 that killed hundreds of Russians in their beds and were unconvincingly blamed on foreign terrorists—the question has always come up: Did Putin order it? Or was it orchestrated by “friends” trying to control his path?
The cases include: Who allowed a highly sophisticated missile system into Ukraine to shoot down a Malaysian airliner? Who arranged the 2006 fatal poisoning in London, using another exotic weapon, of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko ?
Who authorized the murder of Boris Nemtsov, Mr. Putin’s most credible domestic political opponent? Who exactly was responsible for the style and content of Russia’s meddling in Western elections? (Arrests and an unexplained death in Moscow since November 2016 suggest to some that Mr. Putin was not entirely happy with the result.)
These questions are always apt in one sense. The picture of a masterly Putin calling every shot is apocryphal. He intervenes in the projects of his intelligence and criminal confreres only when he has to—when he perceives danger to himself by failing to exercise control.
At the same time, by now there is an apparatus of billionaires and security officials who depend on his remaining in power and seek to signal to rivals and the broader public at home that he is invulnerable. And a big part of invulnerability, in their minds, means being immune to imagined or real Western efforts to weaken his position.
London has long been a favorite place for Putin allies to stash their stolen wealth and conduct their rivalries. Since the attack last week on Sergei Skripal, a former head of Scotland Yard is now calling for investigation of 14 other mysterious, Russia-related deaths.
No longer is it possible for the government of Prime Minister Theresa May to soft-pedal this mess and retain the respect of its public. Let’s hope another consideration is also at play: a growing understanding that worse may be coming unless Western allies start drawing lines Mr. Putin is bound to respect.
His biggest roll of the dice, with the biggest upside if he wins, would be a campaign of aggression against a nearby NATO member that would be aimed at proving the alliance to be an empty bag. There is reason to worry such a campaign is in the cards.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. He made a non-insane point before becoming president: Mr. Putin walks all over the West because we let him. Relations, Mr. Trump suggested, would improve when Mr. Putin is met by somebody equally tough.
Assuming Mr. Trump understood his own words, he should also understand that he has failed so far to achieve the desired result. Though his differences with Rex Tillerson were numerous, it hardly helps that Mr. Tillerson was fired Tuesday after he spoke strongly and plainly about how the Putin challenge had only worsened on Mr. Trump’s watch.
Britain is one of America’s closest allies. So far, the president has reportedly said the right things on the phone to Mrs. May but will the U.S. under Mr. Trump be up for a prolonged and costly effort to alter Russia’s path?
Mr. Putin’s career, alas, has become a funnel down which there is unlikely to be any return for Russia while he lives. And he plans to live. Aside from his speech this month outlining miracle weapons on Moscow’s drawing board, he has, in recent years, created a private army for his personal protection. His regime is currently resurrecting a Soviet commissariat (or a new Gestapo) to police the political reliability of the regular army. Meanwhile, his billionaire cronies seem to have reconciled themselves to eternal dependence on him.
Three levers are available and yet have been hardly tried against the Kremlin: More-capable weapons, supplied overtly or covertly, to those resisting Russian-backed forces in Ukraine and Syria. Freezing the assets of Putin-friendly Russians in the West. Spilling the intelligence beans linking Mr. Putin to various matters that would discredit him in the eyes of his saner countrymen.
Sen. Marco Rubio, during a confirmation hearing last year, elicited from the now-ousted Mr. Tillerson an acknowledgment of the considerable evidence linking Russia’s secret police (formerly headed by Mr. Putin) to the 1999 apartment bombings. This was a breakthrough. The U.S. government has been decisively silent on the subject for nearly 20 years.
OK, don’t hold your breath. Democrats who’ve discovered Mr. Putin only because he’s a club to use against Donald Trump should especially not kid themselves. Even less pushback was likely to come from previous administrations. The West’s risk-aversion in dealing with Mr. Putin is understandable. It’s also the reason we may be sailing into increasingly dangerous straits in our relations with Russia.
Appeared in the March 14, 2018, print edition.