Putin’s Favorite Tactic Has Finally Backfired

LONDON — In the early spring of 2014, the world watched, astonished, as soldiers without insignia took over government buildings in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, surrounded Ukrainian military bases and installed new leaders in the region. President Vladimir Putin of Russia claimed at the time that these were not Russian soldiers. Instead, he said, these were “local self-defense units.” Less than a month later, Russia annexed Crimea. And a year after that, Mr. Putin admitted what everyone had suspected all along: Yes, Russian soldiers had been involved.

That was when the term “plausible deniability” became a standard part of Western discussions about Russia. The practice of carrying out dubious deeds through the hands of proxies or other hard-to-identify agents has since become something of a trademark of Mr. Putin’s. Sometimes, the agents are indeed Kremlin actors in disguise, as they were in Crimea. But in the years since, Mr. Putin has pushed this tactic even further, implicitly or explicitly encouraging independent agents to act on their own, keeping the Kremlin’s hands clean. On many occasions, this has left the West a helpless bystander, unable to force Russia to account for its actions.

But time may be running out on this tactic. The attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who was found unresponsive in southwest England earlier this month, poisoned with a deadly nerve agent, may be the moment when “plausible deniability” has reached its limits. In fact, it now looks as if it is turning against its masters in the Kremlin. The United States’ decision on Monday, alongside Canada and a number of European countries, to expel Russians in retaliation for the poisoning makes clear to Moscow that its actions have consequences, whether it denies them or not.

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has resorted to “plausible deniability” again and again. The interference in the American presidential elections was a classic case: Mr. Putin has repeatedly emphasized that Russia has not intervened “at the level of the government,” but he admits that some “patriotic hackers” or trolls with Russian citizenship might indeed have been active. The Russian president has also attempted to reap policy benefits from the denied action, steering the conversation toward his own priorities: accusing the United States of interfering in Russia and making the case for cooperating to regulate the internet and social media.

This strategy isn’t an unmitigated success. In 2016, in a big embarrassment for Moscow, two Russian intelligence agents were indicted by Montenegro for plotting a coup that was supposed to take place under the cover of spontaneous anti-NATO protests. More tragic was the huge blunder of Russia’s proxies shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Moscow claims to this day that it had nothing to do with it, but it was nonetheless unable to escape reprimand from the international community.

The problem is that “plausible deniability” empowers all sorts of activists and proxies. Sometimes, these people act under the Kremlin’s instructions; other times, they set out independently, trying to do what they think would please Mr. Putin. They cannot always be successfully controlled, and they may inadvertently commit blunders or cross lines that the Kremlin did not want to cross.

In theory, Mr. Putin could disown them once they’ve made mistakes or been exposed, but this rarely happens. He values loyalty above almost all else and has no desire to punish people or groups he views as loyal, even if they misbehave.

But the use of proxies has now started to hinder Russia’s ability to make coherent policy. Western concerns over Russia’s interference in domestic affairs — which are blown far out of proportion but are still rooted in the real activities of Russian trolls and hackers — means that even the most legitimate practices, such as Russia promoting its businesses abroad, are now viewed with suspicion. Russia’s foreign ministry isn’t happy about this situation and neither are Moscow’s business circles. But they cannot raise the issue with the Kremlin: Because these activities are being denied, they can’t be brought up in normal policy discussions. So it’s effectively impossible for the different Russian institutions to come together and discuss what the country as a whole wins or loses by engaging in such actions.

The attempted murder of Mr. Skripal has made the situation even worse. Many aspects of this case remain puzzling: It is hard to understand why the Kremlin would want to escalate tensions with the West so intensely right now. This escalation is drastically limiting Russia’s foreign policy options, and Mr. Putin likes to have multiple options on table.

It is true that Mr. Putin doesn’t tolerate traitors, but exchanged spies like Mr. Skripal have traditionally been immune. Why would Moscow want to change those Cold War-era rules of spy swaps, rules from which Russia also benefits? It’s also doubtful that the attempted murder would be motivated by domestic Russian politics. The crime happened too late to feed into the elections, and it wasn’t employed in the campaign.

A more logical explanation is that an assassination attempt was carried out by some powerful actors outside the Kremlin — perhaps sanctioned in broad terms but not specifically. But even that raises many questions: Why leave such a clear “signature” — a nerve agent produced only in the former Soviet Union? Was it actually a message? If so, from whom and to whom?

Ultimately, none of this really matters at this point. “Patriotic hackers” or “patriotic trolls” can act independently, but if someone walks around using a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia, that becomes a problem for Moscow, regardless of the circumstances of the case or the identity of the people involved. Even if the attack against Mr. Skripal was a “terrorist attack,” as the Russian foreign ministry improbably suggested, everyone’s eyes would still turn to Russia since it is the only known producer of the substance.

And Moscow’s track record with “plausible deniability” — from Ukraine to the United States — makes things worse. The world does not yet know the full details of the Skripal poisoning, but it does not feel like waiting, as the expulsions make clear. Too often in the past, Moscow has denied its involvement in cases that later end up being traced to the Kremlin or its proxies. The result is that its denials lack credibility. Now, the successful use of “plausible deniability” in all the previous cases collides with the Kremlin’s current interests and contributes to the verdict: guilty until proven innocent.