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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 23rd March 2018 > Pick Your Poison

Pick Your Poison

The Kremlin may have ordered a hit on an ex-Russian spy in the U.K. But some point to a scarier prospect—that Moscow’s death squads did it on their own



SOME NERVE (GAS) After Skripal’s poisoning, Russia’s propaganda machine went into full denial mode. the Kremlin.

“TRAITORS WILL KICK THE bucket, trust me,” the man said. “Those folks betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.”

This statement is not a line delivered by a Mafia boss in the Godfather series. It’s an actual statement then–Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made on national TV in 2010. So it’s of little surprise that the British media were quick to blame the Kremlin on March 6 when 68-year-old former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a deadly nerve agent in the center of the sleepy English country town of Salisbury.

It would be outrageous enough if Russia’s president ordered such a hit on British soil. But the more frightening possibility is that the attempted assassination was the work of a Russian death squad operating with official impunity but on its own initiative. Putin has often been blamed for the murder of his opponents—from the poisoning death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 to the deadly shooting of leading activist Boris Nemtsov on a Moscow bridge in 2015. And perhaps rightly so. But what if Russia’s president is not, in fact, an all-seeing puppet master, as some believe he is, but rather just an average autocratic leader in charge of an unruly and murderous gang of semi-rogue spies?

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THE FALL OF KING BIBI? When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington earlier this month, it should have been a political triumph, a moment of exultation. For most of his twelve years in power, the hawkish Israeli prime minister was forced to work with presidents who despised him, left-leaning Democrats who talked about settlements and Palestinian statehood. Now, he has Donald Trump. Their March 5 meeting at the White House was the first since the U.S. announced plans to relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this spring. Israeli politicians had long demanded the move; Netanyahu was the one to deliver it. And yet the whole trip was spoiled from the start. Hours before Netanyahu met with Trump, Israelis learned that one of the prime minister’s closest advisers had turned against him. Nir Hefetz, a former journalist, has been described as “Netanyahu’s spin doctor,” the man responsible for massaging press coverage of the first couple. But after Hefetz’s arrest in February, he agreed to turn state’s evidence and hand over recordings of the Netanyahus discussing an alleged criminal conspiracy. If a series of corruption scandals force Netanyahu out of office, he will leave behind a country that is deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided.