At quarter past nine on a clear Sunday morning, Sergei Skripal left his house in Salisbury, England, with his daughter Yulia. She’d flown in from Russia the day before, and both were looking forward to a nice day out. They parked in a shopping centre at 13:40 and stopped by a pub called the Mill for a quick drink, before sitting down for lunch at a nearby restaurant at 14:20.
Exactly one hour and fifteen minutes later, they left the restaurant feeling a bit ill. Maybe it was the food? They sat on a nearby bench, just next to an unkempt green park, to wait it out.
At 16:15, Detective Sgt Nick Bailey found the pair slumped forward, as if asleep. He also quickly succumbed to illness, and all three were rushed to hospital. They had been poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok, which disrupts nerve signals to cause death through paralysis and suffocation. It had been smeared on Sergei’s front door.
The attempted assassination saw a sterner global response than many expected. Over 200 Russian diplomats were expelled from embassies worldwide. Yet despite global condemnation, the assassinations have continued. Investigative journalist Maksim Borodin recently died after falling out the window of his apartment in Yekaterinburg. His colleagues say it was highly unlikely to be suicide.
Even prior to these events, Russia had a well-documented history of high profile assassinations: in 2006, journalist Anna Politskovkaya was gunned down in an elevator; a few weeks later, Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned by a radionuclide; in 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a politician, was shot dead in sight of the Kremlin.
So why does Russia assassinate journalists and dissenters in public?
In the Skripals’ case, some deny that the Russian government was responsible, but the only plausible conclusion is that it was a Russian hit. Other explanations are that the Skripals were targeted by a ‘bungling’ group of rogue Russian agents, or by a counter-intelligence operation imbued with a ‘sacred’ duty to exact revenge.
Yet attempting to place exact blame misses the point. Public assassinations are not only a tactic used by the Russian state, rogue agents, or Putin himself to take out opponents. The choices of targets and methods suggests that assassinations are also a symptom of how power is arranged and contested amongst Russia’s elite.
First, consider the targets. Skripal and Litvenenko were both defectors from the FSB, Nemstov was an outspoken opposition leader, and Politskovkaya and Borodin had both published damaging articles - Borodin, for example, had recently reported on the deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria. All had publicly challenged or betrayed people or organisations in Russia’s political-security apparatus.
Second, consider the methods. Throwing a journalist out a window is hardly subtle, and neither is spreading a military-grade nerve agent around rural England. Moscow is not ‘bungling’ - these tactics are chosen because they make the news. Using a nerve agent that directly implicates the Russian state sends a message to other double agents. This may be why Russia’s ‘explanations’ are so implausible (one somehow involved the Skripals’ pet guinea pigs); they are token excuses for a clear and unmissable signal.
These observations might seem obvious, but they imply that powerful actors within Russia use assassination as a tactic not only because it removes opponents, but also sends a public signal of ‘strength’ to those thinking about challenging the status quo. Extraterritorial assassination attempts using radioactive or chemical weapons might send a louder signal (and imply they were sanctioned at the uppermost levels); yet they nonetheless broadcast the same signal of ‘strength’ as assassinations on Russian territory that don’t make international headlines.
So what does this say of how power is arranged and contested amongst the Russian elite? The need to signal ‘strength’ suggests a fear of being seen as weak. This fear is symptomatic of power struggles occurring within patron-client systems, a concept borrowed from anthropology to describe power dynamics in post-Soviet states.
In patron-client hierarchies, leaders promote and protect their clients to secure a debt of personal loyalty. Networks are reinforced through emotional and familial ties. Putin’s inner circle, for example, is composed of men who know him from childhood and through the KGB. These threads of personal loyalty extend downwards through innumerable networks to make a complex web that allows the Kremlin to exercise power through shadowy groups ranging from business elites to mercenaries and armed motorcycle gangs.
There are two characteristics of patron-client systems that go some way in explaining why Russia conducts brazen assassinations. First, leaders in patron-client systems must constantly signal their strength to retain clients’ loyalty and ward off challengers (which also explains why Putin is often photographed tranquillising tigers or riding motorcycles).
Second, a weak patron can be overthrown, but only through collective action; clients must first agree on a new patron, gather enough support, and agree on a time to switch their loyalty, all whilst keeping their own clients in check. The patron, on the other hand, only needs to disrupt the process - potentially through a brutal public assassination - in order to retain their grip on power.
This is not to say that Russia is wholly governed by patron-client politics, nor that this is the sole explanation for the assassinations. Patron-client dynamics do, however, help explain why the assassinations continue despite international condemnation, and why simply expelling Russian diplomats is unlikely to have much impact.
Borodin’s death is also a reminder that we should not differentiate our reaction according to whether the assassinations occur inside or outside Russia. The Skripals and Borodin are victims of the same systemic violence, and tragically, unlikely to be the last.
A version of this article was originally published in the Lowy Interpreter.