Led by British Prime Minister Theresa May, the international community has come to the unshakable conclusion that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, an emigre Russian GRU officer, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England. Skripal spied for the British, then was caught, imprisoned and exchanged in a spy swap in 2010. The damning evidence of Russia’s involvement in the attack includes the identity of the victim as a convicted “traitor” to Russia, the proprietary nerve agent used in the attack and a snarky tweet by the Russian embassy in London. The United States has joined its European allies in punishing Russia for the attack and withdrawn 60 diplomats from the country.

No one seems to have any doubt that the Russians did it — except, of course, the Russians.

For the Russians, the case is just as cut-and-dried as it is for the British and their Western allies: the Skripal poisoning is a clear instance of what the Russians dub provocation — an act that is intended to produce a reaction from its target that serves the provocateur’s ends and is damaging to his opponent. The closest analogue to provocation in Western conspiratorial discourse is a false-flag operation, which refers to attacks carried out undercover to implicate the other party.

In this case, Russia accuses the British government of perpetrating the attack on the Skripals to discredit Vladimir Putin’s government before the March 18 presidential elections. Dmitry Kovtun, the Russian businessman accused of poisoning another Russian turncoat, Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, was one of the first to venture this explanation. The accusation was echoed by Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, and insinuated by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself. Not to be outdone, the Russian embassy in London emblazoned a blood-red “PROVOCATION” on a March 13 tweet.

With the word provocation, the Russian government handily flipped the blame and alleged that they were framed by the British. Yet while such mirror allegations are greeted with derisive snorts in the West, they play well in a country that is accustomed to using charges of provocation to blame others on matters as minor as sports and as major as global geopolitics. Understanding this culture should give the West pause as it determines how to react to Russian actions.

For Westerners, a provocation is typically understood as a military action strategically intended to escalate a conflict by provoking the enemy to strike out and thereby justify further aggression. In October 1962 President John F. Kennedy clearly understood the secret Soviet missile buildup on Cuba as a provocation that had to be answered with the utmost sagacity so as not to provide Nikita Khrushchev with justification to move against Berlin. A hot war between the two nuclear superpowers would have had no winners, only losers.

Yet provocations are also endemic to war by other means — politics. In this case, the provocateur’s goal is twofold: to goad his enemy into reacting to the provocation and to win control of the narrative of guilt and blame.

With the exception of a conspiratorially minded fringe, Americans are rather ill-equipped to fully grasp provocation, either as tactic or narrative. Russians, on the other hand, have a long and scarring historical acquaintance with the phenomenon. It profoundly shapes the way that regular Russians, as well as the political elite, make sense of contentious and confounding realities.

The word provocation exists in all European languages, but Russians use the word “provokatsiia” far more frequently and more often with negative modifiers (for example, “a heinous provocation,” or “a monstrous provocation”) than English-speaking countries do. In Russian, provocation may refer to a provocative action, allege a false-flag operation or simply flip the blame in any run-of-the-mill conflict.

There is good reason for this wide-ranging usage: the word gained currency in Russia in the mid-19th century as a pejorative term to describe a secret police tactic, in which agents of the tsarist Okhrana infiltrated revolutionary organizations and instigated illegal acts, up to and including terrorist attacks, against the autocratic government. In 1909, when Evno Azef, the leader of a militant terrorist organization, was unmasked as a police agent, talk of provocation was everywhere. The mass circulation press, highbrow journals and even belles lettres were full of stories about Azef and the unmasking of provocateurs.

Fear of provocateurs and provocation peaked during the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war. It became embedded in Soviet political culture, as the government perceived the vulnerability of the fledgling communist state, one encircled by hostile capitalist nations and riddled — or so the Bolsheviks believed — with internal enemies.

External and internal enemies became linked, and during the Stalinist terror and show trials in the late 1930s, Bolshevik leaders were “unmasked” as “terrorists, spies, and provocateurs” in league with the Germans, British or Americans. Subsequently, the bipolar hostility of the Cold War made for the ideal breeding ground for tactical provocations between the superpowers, as well as provocation narratives involving mirror allegations.  

After a lull in usage during the late Soviet period, provocation discourse has made a roaring comeback in Putin’s Russia. To some extent, it is part and parcel of the conspiracy culture that has engulfed Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as disoriented and disempowered former Soviet citizens attempt to make sense of a complex reality.

Yet provocation is different from conspiracy theories because it is such a devilishly simple, all-purpose mechanism that simply flips the narrative. While conspiracy theories typically posit a powerful and secret cabal that pulls the strings of a complex plot, provocation has a pedestrian he-said-she-said dynamic that simply pins the tail of blame on the other donkey.

And allegations of provocation are by no means limited to cloak-and-dagger intrigues or power politics, but to more mundane spheres of Russian life. What are referred to as “ordinary” provocations are routinely reported in the Russian media. Sports rivalries are rife with allegations of provocation of one team by another. Bureaucratic incompetence is decried as a “provocation” to discredit said bureaucracy. And Russian law enforcement’s use of illegal methods to entrap corrupt officials is referred to as “provocation by bribes.”

Provocation is no mere conspiracy theory, but a pervasive worldview that sees causality and blame as always potentially reversible.

Though far from an “ordinary provocation,” the Russian line that the Skripals’ poisoning was a provocation is, in fact, par for the course and would seem plausible to many Russian citizens. Since the Georgian War in 2008, contested international incidents such as the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 by Russia-backed separatist forces or, for that matter, conflicts such as the war in Ukraine have been widely held to be provocations by the United States or the West.

It is therefore no surprise that the Russian government addressed the Skripal poisoning by shouting provocation to flip the British charges. But what if the attack is in fact best understood as a provocation — but of Western governments? Clearly aware of the audacious nature of the attack, Prime Minister May declared Britain the victim of an “unlawful use of force” and an “indiscriminate and reckless act” that violated its sovereignty. After rallying Parliament to her side, she enacted stiff penalties against Russia and led the United Nations in blackballing it. But in key respects, May’s reaction played into Putin’s hands.

While the actual perpetrators of the attack may never be known, the consequences are already manifest. Tensions between Russia and the West have escalated to a level not seen since the height of the Cold War, and Russians, on the eve of their presidential election, were treated by state-controlled media to a spectacle of Russophobic hysteria in Britain and the unleashing of the West’s punitive force.

The international reaction to the attack-cum-provocation served Putin’s interests by providing compelling support for his own narrative of a grand anti-Russian conspiracy, one that for his home audience legitimized his reelection as the only strong man capable of defending Russia’s national interests. Further, the universal outcry against Russia serves as confirmation that Putin has definitively recouped Russia’s position as the adversarial Great Power.

On March 15, the Security Council of the Russian Federation condemned the “destructive and provocative nature” of Britain’s response, thus setting the allegation of provocation on endless spin cycle. In this escalatory cycle, measures provoke countermeasures, as the Russians now answer the West’s expulsion of their diplomats by expelling ours and closing the American consulate in St. Petersburg.

Thinking like the Russians about provocation need not lead us through their looking glass into a world of mirror realities, but should give us pause about whether our provoked reactions serve our interests — or theirs.