Guest columnist Jim Cahillane: The Russians are here — nervous?

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin leads a cabinet meeting via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 16. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Published: 9/15/2020 11:17:07 AM

Did you hear the one about the Russian “tourist” who offered a cool million dollars to a Tesla employee for doing him a favor? The KGB agent’s request was to have his mark install malware into Tesla’s computer system.

Shockingly, it’s a true story and it happened while the rest of us were distracted by COVID-19, economic collapse, school closures and civil unrest, all of which were exacerbated by President Donald Trump and his follies.

Frankly, the sum total of my international spy knowledge is near zero. During the Cold War, I was stationed on RAF Fairford in the UK. I barely understood that our B-47s flew intelligence-gathering missions along the Soviet Union’s border. My on-base support role was to keep them flying via paperwork.

Years into the future I got around to John le Carré, Ben Macintyre and other masters of spy craft. Great writers though don’t stand a chance to compete with the just-released GOP-led Senate Intelligence Report revealing Russia’s efforts to influence American elections from 2016 to today.

Veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote: “As Democrats accelerate their drive to defeat President Trump in November, they have a potent new weapon in a report by a Republican-led Senate committee that chronicles the ‘grave counterintelligence threat’ posed by the extensive contacts between Trump’s former campaign chairman and a Russian intelligence operative. Here at last is hard evidence — that shreds Trump’s false claims of a Russian ‘hoax’ or “Witch hunt.’”

Ignatius continues: “The report includes hundreds of pages of other damning information. One particularly vivid passage describes Trump’s attempt to ingratiate himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he was hosting the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in November 2013. ‘I am a big fan of yours,’ Trump cooed back in 2007 in a congratulatory letter.”

Thanks to this GOP-led intelligence report, we now know that Trump and his minions were willing to accept campaign help from Russian spies, with, apparently, no reservations at all. Consider, for a moment, the people that they were dealing with. A few examples: In November 2006, two KGB agents poisoned Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko by adding polonium to his tea in a London hotel. The clumsy assassins left a radioactive trail that led back to Moscow and Putin. Scotland Yard found traces of polonium on aircraft, in cars and hotel rooms. They reported it was only by luck that the agents had not poisoned themselves.

We sometimes give too much credit to spies that are more Laurel and Hardy than George Smiley. On the other hand, so-called sleeper agents like those in the scary TV series, “The Americans,” provided entertainment with a dark undercurrent of malice. Not funny at all.

A true story: On March 4, 2018, in England’s ancient cathedral city of Sarum, now Salisbury, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence agent and his daughter, Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent. The British government established the poison was identified as Novichok and could only have originated in a Russian military laboratory.

I took particular notice of the Salisbury outrage because in 1993, we’d visited the city and its famous cathedral, 25 years before the Skripals were nearly murdered there. A policeman found them unconscious on a park bench. He and they survived following long hospitalizations. The spies discarded the bottle into trash where a scavenger found it and later died.

Coincidentally, we ate our lunch at the same public house in the city center. I wrote a remembrance to mark our stop.

 

One Day In Salisbury

Close within God’s ample arms

Enveloped by a new city’s charms,

We walked about this way and that

True tourists, when, exhausted, sat.

Our daily prayer, the Rector spoke

Of grace within this church’s cloak

For seven hundred years and more.

Welcome, come join us and explore

How man, how woman, and the child

Within wanting more of pounds piled

High, good for buying and selling joy

Lives soon shorter our time does cloy

Its uncertain way: Shaky steps to start,

Paths unknown, slowing — soon to part.

Stopping for cheer; a tap-drawn ale:

Food, love — wages for years on sale.

Give over oaf, there is no denying

Old Sarum days will end in crying.

What disturbs me is the touristy day we enjoyed in contrast with the terror that traced our steps so many years later. Like today, before COVID-19 restrictions, it was impossible to envision dramatic changes to our everyday lives. Who wants to walk into the throes of an international spy attack?

The shameless excuse of the two KGB officers identified by British intelligence as the Salisbury attackers were that they were “tourists” interested in visiting the cathedral. The British found traces of nerve agent on the door and door handles on Skripal’s house. Military chemists identified the nerve agent as Novichok, known exclusively as a Soviet-era and Russian lethal weapon that can be delivered as a liquid, powder or aerosol.

Novichok next made the leap to August 2020 and its murderous use in the attack on Aleksei A. Navalny, Russian President Putin’s chief critic and political enemy. News reports have him drinking tea before boarding a plane in Siberia on his way back to Moscow. Video from the plane shows him moaning in the aisle, forcing a landing far from his destination.

Russian doctors first said it wasn’t poison, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel challenged that idea when Navalny was flown to Germany and Novichok was found in his system. Merkel condemned the crime outright, calling for NATO to investigate and hold Russia accountable.

On Sept. 14, the German government said Navalny had awoken from his induced coma, was aware of his surroundings and expressed a desire to return to Russia.

Alexei is just the latest of Putin’s victims. Reporters have been shot in doorways and in the street. Opposing politicians like Navalny are beaten up, arrested, jailed and forbidden to contest elections at every level.

Could it happen here?

American voters have a lot to consider in November. Those considering Trump for his “law and order” pitch will have to weigh almost 200,000 dead citizens thanks to his failed response to COVID-19. Internationally, his admiration and overtures to Putin and other dictators should earn him a nyet, millions of times over.

For my part, I’m planning to vote as if my life depended on it!

Freelance writer Jim Cahillane is surprised how history can mirror our lives and, at times, hauntingly rhyme. He lives in Williamsburg).


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