THE LONG ARMS OF THE KREMLIN
When a retired Russian spy named Sergei Skripal lives out his retirement years near Porton Down, site of the UK Defence Ministry’s top-secret ‘Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’, a unit which itself developed chemical weapons at Porton Down in the 1950’s, it’s a coincidence. When the defected Russian agent is poisoned by a rare nerve agent exclusively developed by and manufactured in Soviet Russia, it’s more than a coincidence. And when the poisoning of this former double agent follows a series of suspicious Russian deaths that have occurred inside Britain during the last decade, then it’s more a probability than it is a mere coincidence that Russia’s secret services are somehow involved. This isn’t a riddle nor a theoretical hypothesis. It’s a breakdown of the salient facts regarding a new and quite explosive event whose signifying details bear the hallmarks of a Kremlin-sanctioned killing. Suddenly, a double homicide attempt becomes an international incident.
The attempted assassination of a Russian exile naturalised in the UK took place in Salisbury on March 4, 2018. Former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who lives in Russia and was visiting him at the time, were found slumped on a bench, in a confused and unresponsive state at 4.15pm that day. A passing pedestrian who discovered the victims raised the alarm. Mr Skripal had already been observed “behaving erratically” in a nearby restaurant in the preceding hour. The pair were rushed to Salisbury District Hospital where they both lapsed into a comatose state. They remained in critical condition as of March 16.
The use of a lethal nerve agent in a targeted assassination of a UK citizen on British soil was last discovered in the poisoning in 2006 of a former FSB (previously KGB) agent, Alexander Litvinenko. Consequently, the latest detection of a Russian-manufactured nerve agent which struck down the Skripals has stoked an anger which was first provoked in 2006 and which still hasn’t been quenched.
The nerve agent in question belongs to the Novichok family of chemical weapons developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and 80’s. Novichok is a Russian term meaning ‘Newcomer’. The Soviet scientists who created these nerve agents claimed their potency was five to eight times stronger than VX, the deadly agent used in the murder of Kim Jong-Un, a half-brother to the North Korean dictator, inside Kuala Lumpur Airport in 2017. Novichok, which has never been used in warfare, was designed to be undetectable, to permeate NATO chemical protection outfits and to bypass the list of controlled precursors. That’s the lowdown on Novichok.
Who, however, is Mr. Skripal?
Sergei Skripal was a colonel serving in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence department, before working in the foreign office and going into business - until his arrest in 2006. He was accused of supplying MI6, the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, with the names of Russian agents working undercover across Europe. Sergei was charged by Russia’s state prosecutor with passing state secrets to MI6 ever since the 1990s, when he served in the GRU; in return for a payment of $100,000 from MI6. He was convicted of “high treason in the form of espionage” and given a jail sentence of thirteen years. Skripal pled guilty from the outset. He had served only four years when his sentence was interrupted and he was deported to England and given UK residency, as part of a ‘spy swap’ which took place in 2010.
An hour and a half by train from London, and two hours by car, Salisbury lies within easy reach of the UK capital. A local taxi driver said Mr Skripal used the non-stop London service with relative frequency, despite having long since been debriefed by MI6 and therefore having no intelligence business in the city, one assumes. I used the same service to travel down to Salisbury in order to inspect the Novichok crime scene for GQ. On the way there, I downloaded a kindle edition of Alexander Litvinenko’s collected writings, picking out key passages which could possibly shed some light on the Skripal affair. Upon reading, I was struck immediately by the directness and ferocity of Alexander’s accusations against President Putin. His total insistence that Putin was guilty of ordering his murder in addition to many others is as daring an act of defiance as you can imagine. So daring, in fact, it cost Litvinenko his life. Many chapters serve as warnings, in the apparent expectation that targeted hits sanctioned by the Kremlin would be repeated in the future. He expresses his appraisal of the secret services quite clearly:
In the KGB times, only one body could take a decision to murder someone - that was the Politburo of the Communist Party. Today, it depends on the social status of the victim, on how important they are. Some people may be killed only on the President’s orders; smaller figures may be sentenced to death by the FSB leadership…
For a long time now, nobody has controlled the FSB from outside. There is absolutely no parliamentary control.
That’s just the beginning of the book. Many chapters later, my train arrived in the provincial town of Salisbury, in the southern English county of Wiltshire. It is a country town with a population of just 40,000. Compared to cosmopolitan London it isn’t much to write home about. The town has the backward and somewhat purposeless feel of many other rural English towns. Salisbury feels half-empty when I visit, however, because nobody lingers on the pavement to talk or simply to pass the time of day. The youth community appears to be poorly served and mostly I see older people shuffling here and there. No doubt the presence of so many police officers, soldiers, forensic specialists and detectives had terrified local teenagers into staying at home. In total, 180 personnel were dispatched to Salisbury in the days following the Skripal incident.
The town’s young adults and occasional delinquents usually enjoy rattling the cages of geriatrics passing through. Otherwise they kill time loitering outside a pub and heckling pedestrians. It’s how things should be in country towns, in my experience. It’s how things normally are.
Not today, however. The town centre retains the air of a recent state of emergency. Officers posted here and there as lookouts protected the scene of the crime from any breach. Meanwhile specialists from the bomb squad and experts from similarly exceptional divisions searched the ground for any extant evidence or contaminated objects. I recalled a chapter of Litvinenko’s which describes a terrorist attack and its effect on society:
Remarkably, terrorist attacks happen in Russia during every electoral campaign. There were explosions in the subway before the 1996 elections… Then there were apartment block explosions in 1999, and nobody ever caught the organisers. Now another presidential election is coming, so there is a subway explosion again.
I’m reminded that the Russian people will go to the polls this coming Sunday, March 18, when the presidential elections takes place. Putin is sure to win.
To return to Sergei Skripal, and his new life in the UK. The spy swap of 2010 entailed the handover of four Russian spies to the UK and the USA, in exchange for the return to Russia of ten of its ‘sleeper’ agents who were operating under deep cover inside the USA until they were exposed by the Americans’ ‘Illegals Program’, as the bust was then called. Spy swaps are a hangover from the Cold War. The purpose of a spy swap is the repatriation of ‘expired’ spies or double agents, those who have been unmasked inside their host nation and are subsequently incarcerated, despite their being useless and even harmless assets now that their cover has been blown. Generally considered a win-win proposition, a spy swap guarantees the safe after-life of each nation’s agents and their families, permitting them to return to their homeland where they may live at liberty, as opposed to rotting away indefinitely inside a foreign jail (and generating unnecessary costs for their host). They might even receive a hero’s welcome, as did one young, female spy: a redheaded honeypot known in the USA as Anna Chapman until her cover was blown. Chapman has been a press darling in Russia and internationally ever since she was deported. She remains a much-followed figure on social media, which reflects her talent for manipulation, self-insinuation and opportunism. She would have made a good KGB or FSB operative, no doubt? The two acronyms just mentioned amount to one and the same thing, as it happens. Although they aren’t interchangeable, due to the chronology of Russia’s secret services, they are effectively one and the same. So says Litvinenko:
I am aware of only one organisation in the world which practiced terrorism on [an] industrial scale, and made it the main instrument of solving its problems. I am talking about Russian special services. The KGB was involved in terrorism on a massive scale for many years. Terrorists from all over the world were trained at KGB special courses… Specially trained KGB agents organised murders and explosions, including explosions of oil tankers, hijacked airliners, raided...establishments all over the world.
Chechen Press: Can you name at least some terrorists who were trained at KGB or FSB special courses?
Litvinenko: The bloodiest and most infamous terrorists in the world were KGB agents. They include [the] notorious Carlos Ilyich Ramiros, nicknamed [the] ‘Jackal’...[and] Yassir Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Abdullah Ocalan, People’s Liberation Front of Palestine external operations section chief Wadia Haddad,...Papaioanou of Cyprus, Sean Garland of Ireland and many others.
He adds the following surmise:
It is no coincidence that the terrorism in the world declined dramatically after the USSR and KGB collapsed. But this decline continued only until the Chekists recaptured power in Russia. Now it is all back. As soon as Putin was appointed the FSB chief, that service restarted political persecution, and the KGB veteran terrorists returned to their jobs.
It’s a tough game, the spy game. In 2010 Skripal was flown to the UK, via Vienna - where the spy swap actually took place, with the two sides’ planes standing right next to each other on the airport tarmac. On arrival, it’s assumed he was given a new name, a new home and a pension. Skripal settled in Salisbury, where he lived in a somewhat solitary manner after his wife’s death from cancer.
What about the regular trips to London he made in the last few years? Intelligence sources in the UK advise that Skripal was “well and truly debriefed” in 2010. He’d outlived his utility entirely as a double agent for MI6. He was history. Why then did Skripal travel frequently to London, if not to assist British intelligence services?
The answer to that question is not as difficult as it seems. London is a major metropolis and multicultural melting-pot, with a population of 8,787,892 as of 2016. As well as a tax haven for the richest 1% in the world, London has also become the number-one go-to location for private intelligence firms. The Financial Times published a feature in 2017 entitled The Information Wars - or Spies, Lies and the Oligarch: Inside London’s Booming Secrets Industry. The story reveals the size of the private intelligence business, with boutique companies incorporated every other week in order to meet the demand for their services. The current boom is driven from affluent exiles who seek refuge in the UK but have left behind money and complicated business holdings in their countries of origin, which they wish to escape without losing their capital. Intelligence firms are usually staffed by ex spies, be they former CIA or MI5 officers. They cross over to the private sector because of the financial rewards. It’s possible Mr Skripal freelanced for such companies. Did his freelance work get him killed?
Over the last decade especially, London has granted asylum to a long list of Putin’s critics - possibly antagonizing the Russian President by doing so. To keep up with the Russian diaspora, perhaps, Putin has increased the number of Russian intelligence agents and their international networks to level exceeding those of the Cold War, according to Mark Galeotti, an authority on Russia based at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. Ever since the end of the Soviet Union, London has been a sanctuary for emigrès with enough money to buy property and UK citizenship. Wealthy exiles, the most visible of whom are Russian, are conspicuous for their spending power.
It’s a world away from the Salisbury shopping centre whose entire overground parking lot remains cordoned off because Skripal had parked his car there. I walk to the bridge overlooking ‘The Maltings’, an ersatz scenic spot beside a small river, and the place where the Skripals collapsed on a bench. At the cemetery where Sergei’s wife and son are buried, white tents conceal their graves as forensic experts sift through soil wearing HazMat suits and oxygen masks for protection. They look like spacemen.
The image of the UK as a secure sanctuary for high net-worth foreigners is threatened by the Skripal case. And given the number of exiled Russians’ dead bodies discovered in the U.K. since Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia, it’s not surprising that British Prime Minister Theresa May is accused of overreacting in her response to what she told parliament was “a direct act by the Russian state against our country”, no less. May used her official statement to accuse Russia of “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”, despite the risk of undermining Anglo-Russian relations. Her argument for so doing is based on a series of assumptions only and lacks mention of any hard evidence connecting the Kremlin with the incident.
To understand her response, it helps to remember that Theresa May was Home Secretary during a period which saw numerous Russian-mandated assassinations carried out in the UK. At the time, she was criticized for ‘looking the other way’ and failing to order deeper investigations into numerous cases of Russian exiles who were murdered or who died in suspicious circumstances. Litvinenko’s murder was one of more than a dozen interconnected deaths. An investigation opened by the surviving relatives of the deceased in conjunction with a group of investigative reporters from BuzzFeed News found evidence connecting no less than fourteen people who were killed or driven to commit suicide, out of despair and terror for the painful deaths they would suffer should they be captured by the Russian or Turkish mafia, whose members had been following and threatening every victim in the group of fourteen. The BBC has independently verified the main revelations of the BuzzFeed investigation.
For years, Boris Berezovsky was Putin’s Public Enemy No.1. Despite his first-class security detail, berezovsky was found dead in a bathroom in his own home. It seemed at first that he had hung himself with a cashmere scarf. However, the bruising around his neck has led at least one coroner to question the cause of death. It’s well-known that FSB agents are skilled in the art of managing a murder to look like an accident or suicide. The investigation into the fourteen suspicious deaths found that each victim was directly or indirectly linked to Boris Berezovsky, Putin’s arch enemy.
To grasp the picture fully, we must look back to 2006 - to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector granted political asylum in Britain. Three weeks after drinking green tea laced with the radioactive toxin Polonium-210, Alexander Litvinenko was dead. The Skripal case should be viewed through the lens of the Litvinenko hit, which took place in a Central London hotel and sushi bar - in a public place in broad daylight.
“Relations between the UK and Russia have never recovered since [Litvinenko]”, said Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, a portrait of post-millennial Russia. Relations between Russia and the UK were undermined during the ten-year hiatus following Litvinenko’s murder. The subsequent investigation took a decade to reach its damning conclusion.
Litvinenko was an officer in the FSB. In November, 1998, he and his colleagues accused their FSB superiors of ordering the assassination of a media tycoon named Boris Berezovsky. It was an order they refused to carry out. Killing wasn’t part of the job, the way they saw it - despite the penalties levied by the FSB against acts of insubordination.
You don’t need to be clairvoyant to understand that the chemistry between Putin and Berezovsky was not good - irrespective of Litvinenko. To whom we now return.
Alexander was arrested twice in 1999. The charges were dismissed, twice, in ‘99 and 2000. He fled to London with his family before any more charges against him could be trumped up. In London, aka Londongrad, Litvinenko reinvented himself. He became an author and a journalist. He changed ideologies, too, becoming a fierce advocate of democracy. Like Berezovsky, he never stopped condemning Putin. Not even after he was poisoned did he stop. Alexander’s final statement, written from hospital on the eve of his death the 23rd November, 2006, is nothing less than a denunciation of Putin the man, and ‘Putinism’ the regime. The public inquiry into Alexander’s murder ultimately identified a former KGB bodyguard named Andrey Lugovoy as the prime suspect. Today, Lugovoy is a deputy of Russia’s State Duma. He remains wanted by British police for the killing of Alexander Litvinenko; Russia refuses to extradite him to the UK. Alexander’s death remains unredeemed therefore.
What does this have to do with Sergei Skripal?
This is what. Litvinenko’s murder and the findings of the painstaking inquiry which followed set a precedent. A precedent which becomes a pattern as soon as it’s reiterated in a similar fashion - as it was in the Skripal hit.
-- Just when you think you’re getting to the bottom of things, Breaking News reports that yet another Russian exile and close friend of Berezovsky’s has died. Nikolai Glushkov, once Berezovsky’s right-hand man, was found dead at his London home on March 12, a week after the Skripals fell sick. While the cause of death isn’t yet clear, the counter-terrorism unit is investigating the case in view of the victim’s “associations”. No evidence links the two cases, but by now it’s impossible to ignore the pattern which reflects the systematic elimination of Putin’s biggest critics living in exile in London.
Scott Stewart, a Russia analyst at STRATFOR: Worldview - the same STRATFOR which was hacked by WikiLeaks - offers a straightforward take on the evolving situation. “With this latest attack,” he says, “President Putin is letting the Intelligence world know that he is changing the rules. Betrayal can make you and your family a target, even if you’re no longer in the game,” says Stewart, in reference to the Skripals. “The targeting of personnel exchanged in spy swaps - and their families - is a long-standing taboo,” he explains. Of the Litvinenko hit, Stewart believes it’s just “another example of the Russians leaving a calling-card”. Such dirty business is known as “wet ops” in the espionage world. Stewart says “such attacks are unlikely to end anytime soon.” Putin has explicitly warned Russian spies who betray their country of the punishment they will receive. As the Russian President famously said, “Traitors will kick the bucket”.
It only seems fair to give Litvinenko the last word here:
There is only one thing I know for certain. The centre of world terrorism today is not in Iraq, Afghanistan or [the] Chechen Republic.
The terrorist threat which spreads all over the world originates from the Kremlin and Lubyanka [KGB] offices.
Recently, Putin has reunited all his special services in a single monster; i.e. [he has] restored the KGB. The reason why he did that is that he is preparing political repression of his opponents in Russia on a massive.
He is also after his political opponents who have fled abroad, and whom he sees as his worst enemies.
His final statement, written on his deathbed, ends with a striking accusation. Twenty-four hours after writing it, Litvinenko was dead.