Breaking Down the Russian Spy Attack
12 March, 2018

On March 4, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were the victims of a nerve gas attack in the British town of Salisbury. They are currently fighting for their lives in hospital. The motive and perpetrator behind the attack have not yet been established, however, the world is looking towards the Russian authorities for answers.

The ex-colonel of the Main Intelligence Directorate was also a double agent, who passed on information about the identities of Russian operatives working in the UK and Europe to the British MI6. As a result, he was imprisoned in Russia for 13 years, but was released to the UK in 2010, along with three other Russian prisoners, following a prisoner swap.  

According to The Times columnist Edward Lucas, they may never find out if the order came from the Russian government, but the use of nerve agents suggests high-level involvement.

Lucas told Hromadske that “nerve agents are not something you can buy easily, this is something that comes from a state-sponsored, or state-run laboratory,” adding that, “the question of motive again points to Russia, that the Russian's had several possible motives for trying to kill Mr. Skripal.”   

This is not the first time former Russian agent has mysteriously fallen ill on British soil. The world media has been quick to draw parallels between the Skripal case and the murder of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died from polonium poisoning in 2006.  What’s more, a recent investigation by Buzzfeed News claims that there are at least another 14 suspicious deaths that have been linked to Russia in some way.

This raises the question of what the British authorities could be doing to prevent these attacks.

“We need to improve our Russia-watching capabilities and actually take advice from countries like Ukraine, which understand Russia much better than we do, on the whole, but we need to coordinate more closely with our allies. And, more broadly, we need to rebuild a sort of general security culture,” Lucas says.

The reason behind the attack has also puzzled the British authorities. Although Skripal was long retired, Lucas suggests that he could have helped with consulting and training British officers in Russian intelligence tradecraft

However, according to Lucas, this could also be an example of Russia’s use of “psychological warfare” against the West.

“Russia wants people to feel that Britain is no safer than Ukraine...Traditionally, the West says: Well, that may happen in Ukraine, it wouldn't happen here. And I think the Russians want us to feel that we are unable to defend ourselves,” Lucas says.

Hromadske spoke to British journalist and analyst Edward Lucas via Skype to discuss what we know about the attack so far.

What could be the evidence? How seriously are the British authorities taking the poisoning and the attack on Skripal? From the side of Russia how can we know that the Kremlin or the Russian special services could be behind that attack?

I don't think we're ever going to get the kind of evidence that would convince everybody in the world – like a signed assassination order with the Kremlin's stamp on it – but clearly, nerve agents are not something you can buy easily, this is something that comes from a state-sponsored, or state-run laboratory. And, the question of motive again points to Russia, that the Russian's had several possible motives for trying to kill Mr. Skripal. So, I think the finger of suspicion points at Russian pretty strongly, and, certainly, the British authorities are taking this very seriously.

The Financial Times wrote that Skripal could have possibly cooperated with the British intelligence after his retirement. What important things could he have told them to put his life in danger?

Well, this is a big puzzle because, I mean, I'm sure he did confederate with British intelligence after they swapped him, he would be very grateful to them and he would still know things that would be useful for them, particularly in teaching new recruits about the Soviet or Russian intelligence tradecraft, maybe helping join the dots in some puzzle, making sense of things, so I would be thinking that he would spend maybe a few days a month either giving training, or advice, both for the British services and probably for allied NATO services as well. What's very hard to see is that he did something in the last few months that really triggered Russian interest.  It may be that there was something; maybe he had either a consulting client, or he was involved in some operation which really got the Russians angry, or maybe they just decided to make an example of him -- this was, as they would see it, a traitor living in Britain and they just wanted to have a, sort of, symbolic assassination of this man. But, this is a speculation, which is burning all over London, and all over Britain, at the moment.

When Skripal was exchanged, there were four other former Russian agents, who were brought to the West as well. Do you think there is any threat to their lives? What could be done about this?

One of them – Igor Sutyagin – I think, was never really an intelligence officer. He was a guy who worked at a Russian think-tank and was compiling open source material – basically press cuttings – for a mysterious consulting firm, which, I think, was probably a British or American intelligence operation. So he's in a slightly different category, he works for a think-tank in London, I see him regularly. He's disappeared out of public view at the moment, but I think he would... I suspect he would return to normal life eventually. Then, the other two people who were swapped; we know very little about them. I think one of them was a defector from many years ago to the Americans, who'd rather unwisely gone back to Russia for commercial reasons and had then been arrested. And then there's another one, who I believe – I am not certain – who has actually passed away since, but from natural causes. But, I know very little about the other two and they have stayed very much out of the limelight.

What would the actions of the British government be in case this attack is proven, to some extent, which is possible, in a way that Boris Johnson, the head of the Foreign Office already said, there would be some results, some consequences. But what could this be?

This is, I think, the big dilemma for the British government now, that there are plenty of things that we could do and many of them we should have done a long time ago. I would think that we could have done them after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, 12 years ago. But we didn't do them then because they are politically and economically costly and I fear that that may be the same. Now, for example, we could deal with the tide of Russian dirty money that flows into London, particularly through anonymous companies, which you can use to buy real estate. So that would be one would be to deal with that. I would be in favor of very tough visa restrictions, so that all current or former Russian intelligence officers and Soviet intelligence officers would be unable to come to this country. Many of them now are running important businesses in Russia and they like coming here, so we could put some pressure on their lifestyle. I think we should also be improving our defenses to make sure that this does not happen again. We need to improve our Russia watching capabilities and actually take advice from countries like Ukraine, which understand Russia much better than we do, on the whole, but we need to coordinate more closely with our allies. And, more broadly, we need to rebuild a sort of general security culture, which we had during the Cold War, when we were facing the Soviet threat, and which we have against the terrorist threat now. Russia attacks every part of our society, as you know in Ukraine, everything from the media to the legal system, to cyber, military subversion, psychological operations, all these go on. So the whole of our society, as well as the whole of our government needs to be aware of what Russia's doing and try to stop it.

There were also calls to investigate a number of other suspicious deaths of more than 14 people, who, to some extent, had been connected to Russia, or something connected to Russia, and had died within the last couple of years under very suspicious circumstances. How relevant do you think this information is? To what extent can we say that it's not just one of the few cases of Russian security service officers in action killing people on British soil?

I think that you're absolutely right: these 14 cases need to be reexamined, and, I think, in many cases, the police were much too quick to assume that it was just a suicide or an accident, or so on. I think we should be going back and looking at the evidence again. And we should be certainly telling the police if anything like this happens in the future, that they should look at it through geopolitical and intelligence lenses, rather than just a simple "crime or accident." So there's plenty of scope for improvement on that front and I think that the British authorities are already looking at this.

How can you explain the significance of this particular case of poisoning? And also, could you explain how can these things happen in Britain, on British soil, when we expect the Russian security service to be really tough? You need good opportunities, good tools, to act like that in well-developed countries like the United Kingdom.

I think that's part of the point really, that Russia wants people to feel that Britain is no safer than Ukraine – and you've had many assassinations and other mysterious bad things happening in Kyiv and other cities, and you know, traditionally, the West says: Well, that may happen in Ukraine, it wouldn't happen here. And I think the Russians want us to feel that we are unable to defend ourselves, and this is... I see this assassination fundamentally as part of Russian psychological warfare against this country, and also against our image, because if you are Estonian or Latvian, or Lithuanian, or Polish, or any of these other countries, you are expecting Britain to defend you as part of the NATO article 5 deterrent. And if you see that Russia is able to mount a chemical weapons attack. a chemical; weapons attack on the streets of an English cathedral town killing, or trying to kill, not only a former intelligence officer but one innocent person - his daughter and a policeman -- this isn't a kind brasen, reckless attempt to try and humiliate Britain and to damage the credibility in the eyes of our allies.

There are a number of experts who share the idea that there are more Russian spies in western countries, like Britain and the United States – as many as there were during the Cold War. Do you agree with this? What is the nature of their work today?

Well, I think, first of all, that you're absolutely right that there are more Russian spies in the West than there were Soviet spies at the height of the cold war, and that's because it is so much easier. In the Cold War days, we knew if Soviet citizens came to the West and we could follow them and keep an eye on what they're doing. And now – and it's a wonderful thing, I'm not against it – but we have hundreds of thousands and millions of Russians travelling to the West, living in the West, working in the West, studying in the West, and, of course, some of them are intelligence officers and it's difficult for us to keep track of them. Sometimes they may even marry locals, or take on British citizenship – as the famous Anna Chapman did – and then it becomes very hard to run normal counterintelligence procedures and to catch them all. So the Russians have a big advantage there. For a closed society to spy on an open society is much easier than the other way around. And then there's the question you raised on what they are up to. And, I think it's partly that Russians believe that only secret information is interesting, and we certainly see from when we catch these people that often the tasking, the operations that they're engaged in, are to find out things that you could really just find out by googling or reading the papers. There was an American, a Russian spy in America, who'd been told to find out what was happening on the world gold market, and if you want to know what's happening on the world gold market, I would suggest reading the Financial Time or subscribing to a couple of specialist newsletters and you'll know exactly what's going on. So I think what one thing is, is that they overemphasize the importance of intelligence. But, they're also wanting to establish influence, so I think this is perhaps the most important thing. they want to get closer to people who are decision-makers, policy-makers and see if they can be recruited and whether they can be influenced, whether they can be confused even by their decision-making. And so, I think these Russian influence operations against decision-makers require a lot of intelligence input to find targets and conduct the operations, and so on. There's also pushing public opinion and that also requires some intelligence stuff. Then there's the whole realm of industrial intelligence; trying to close the technological gap between Russia and the West. And then, last but not least and very important, is military intelligence. They want to know how our military thinking works, what equipment we're buying, how it works, how our decision-making systems work, like in the military, what our plans are to defend ourselves and our allies against Russia, and then, of course, the technology. So there's no shortage of targets, I think.

Could you also give us a bit more context? In a way, this particular attack was using a nerve agent, does this have something to do with previous actions from the Russian intelligence? If we speak about any other country, are they doing something like this? How unique is Russia in this kind of thing: poisoning a former agent?

I think that the Soviet Union had fantastic capabilities in poisons, dating back to the days of Leon Trotsky, and Russia has inherited them. So, it's no surprise that when they want to use poisons, they're very good at them. I suspect the Chinese are pretty good at this as well, but I much less experience of Chinese intelligence and they don't operate in the same way in this country. We also saw a spectacular attack using a nerve agent by the Koreans recently at Malaysia airport. So I think the idea of using nerve agents is not particularly unusual, not even with regards to Russia. But I think these highly sophisticated ones, of course, and they're unusual in the means of delivery is unusual. We're still trying work out exactly what happened, although it seems, the current theory, is that Mr. Skripal's daughter brought him a gift from Moscow, and that the gift was something to eat and in the food was a nerve gas, or nerve poison, and they ate and only became ill some hours later, that would certainly fit the fact. So that's the current theory.And, in terms of bumping off other countries' intelligence agents, this is extremely unusual. I mean, the Chinese execute foreign intelligence agents when they are caught within China and the Israelis are extremely good at assassinations, they have a large assassination programme,which has been going on for decades. But, apart from that, I think Russia is probably a world leader. There's the North Koreans, of course, as well, who conduct assassinations. But I think that in assassination a western intelligence officer, when he is retired, at home, in his retirement town – that's pretty unusual. I can't think of any occasion even during the Cold War when that happened.

What do we know from the British news about how critical Skripal's condition is now, and that of the police officer?

All the official information is that they are both in critical condition, which would infer that they are on respirators, being basically kept alive by machines. I've seen it reported in the press that they think she may eventually make it, but it's not looking so good for him. So that will obviously be a sort of important clues, if she is able to tell the police what happened, that may find a very important insight into what really happened in this terrible case.