There have been some stunning developments in the case of the Novichok nerve agent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and the subsequent poisoning of two other Britons. One of those later victims, 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, later died. There now appear to be two new potential victims who might be Russians themselves.

Novichok Collateral Damage or Just Russian Tomfoolery?

Wiltshire, England police confirmed that two individuals exhibiting Novichok-like symptoms were taken from an Italian restaurant in Salisbury to a local hospital Sunday afternoon. According to reports in the UK paper The Independent, the couple began to exhibit what a witness called “the same symptoms” as the Skripals.

First grain of salt: How does that witness know what the Skripals’ symptoms looked like? The pair were found slumped over on a park bench and no one saw them fall ill.

At this point, I’m far more suspicious that this is either an unrelated case of a narcotics overdose – or a Russian ruse to cast doubt on the Skripal case, to keep the residents of Salisbury on-edge, or both. Because the last week has already featured plenty of Russian theater.

the pieces don’t add up

British authorities have identified two suspects in the poisoning, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. The pair traveled from Russia to England at the time of the attack and were in Salisbury on both March 3 and March 4. “We arrived in Salisbury on 3 March and tried to walk through the town, but we lasted for only half an hour because it was covered in snow,” Petrov said in an interview for RT, the Russian state-owned international cable news outlet.

Stop the presses: This may be the first case of a Russian complaining about snow in the history of ever.

Late in the week, citizen-journalist site Bellingcat, which has accurately uncovered the use of chemical weapons in Syria (as well as Russian culpability in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 77 over Ukraine) uncovered a number of details tying the suspects to Russian military intelligence. These details include peculiar entries where information should be, and a telephone number to a Russian Ministry of Defense switchboard. There’s definitely more to these two, and their appearance on RT is reminiscent of Soviet propaganda from days gone by.

throwback to cold war propaganda

During the Cold War, public pronouncements from the Soviet leadership were fodder for innumerable jokes. Prior to their deaths in 1982, 1984, and 1985 respectively, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko we said to “have a cold.” At the same time, Alka-Seltzer was running an ad campaign talking about how bad head colds were in various American cities like Denver, Chicago, and Minneapolis. This led to the joke “A Moscow cold is the worst kind of cold.”

Soviet propaganda worked fine on its own citizens who, lacking a free press, had no independent information to help them evaluate the truthfulness of their government’s pronouncements. To the Western world, they were a pathetic attempt to wave away criticism. There was a strong resemblance to the Wizard of Oz’s insistence to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

For all his strategic prowess, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a product of the Cold War KGB, seems to have learned the wrong lesson from his disinformation activities during the 2016 presidential election. Russian bots, trolls, and sock puppets were able to create confusion and sow discord during the election, but that is a far cry from trying to pass off a farcical cover story in an interview on state-sponsored television.

It’s today’s equivalent of “Comrade Brezhnev has a cold.”


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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin