In the counterintelligence battles of the Cold War, both the United States and Soviet Union penetrated each other’s spy agencies and networks. Mr. Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU. In 2004, he was arrested in Moscow and confessed to having been recruited by British intelligence in 1995, saying he provided information about GRU agents in Europe in exchange for $100,000. He was convicted of treason in 2006 and sentenced to 13 years in jail, but was freed in 2010 in a spy swap and settled in Britain.
Mr. Skripal surely has enemies, including his former employers. Mr. Putin is a veteran of the Soviet KGB and was director of the successor agency, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, in the late 1990s, when Mr. Skripal was betraying Russian secrets to the British. Others who have offended Mr. Putin or his cronies have been shot, poisoned and beaten. In the case of Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB officer poisoned to death with polonium in a teacup in London, a trail of radioactive traces suggests the killers brought the material from Russia. They have never been held to account. Suspicion still lingers over the fate of Mikhail Lesin, Mr. Putin’s former media minister and a Russian advertising executive, who died drunk and injured in a Washington hotel room. And there are other cases.
Mr. Putin lately has been dreaming of Russian grandeur. In a question-and-answer session last week, asked what in history he would like to change, he answered, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.” He spent part of his annual address to the Federal Assembly on March 1 boasting wildly of new nuclear weapons delivery systems. In Syria, a contingent of Russian mercenary fighters last month reportedly attacked a base run by the United States and its Kurdish allies. These come on the heels of Russia’s attempts in 2016 to sow confusion and discord in the U.S. presidential election, potentially helping Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Some of Mr. Putin’s most recent muscle-flexing is due to the Russian presidential election on March 18. But this is not the whole answer. Another disturbing possibility is that Mr. Putin sees the United States “eating itself up,” as he put it, by the chaos of Mr. Trump’s presidency, and thinks this a good time to be adventuresome. All the more reason the United States needs a firm Russia strategy, and soon.