It started on a quiet Sunday afternoon on a shopping centre bench in a sleepy part of Salisbury – but the murky plot involving former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has now exploded into a full-blown international diplomatic crisis.
Skripal, 66, is a former Russian agent who was convicted in his home country of spying for MI6 and who was swapped by Moscow in exchange for ten Russian spies arrested by the FBI, including the infamous Anna Chapman.
Now Skripal and his daughter Yulia, 33, are critically ill in hospital after being found unconscious having being exposed to a mysterious ‘unknown substance’.
Two police officers who were called to the incident were also hospitalised after complaining about itchy eyes and wheezing. A third member of the emergency services is still in hospital. According to the BBC, scientists at the UK’s secret weapons research facility Porton Down are now studying the mysterious substance.
Local police have also handed over the investigation to the national Counter Terrorism Policing network.
Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the head of Counter Terrorism Policing, said: “Working alongside Wiltshire police and partner agencies, we are carrying out extensive inquiries today. This investigation is at the early stages. The focus at this time is to establish what has caused these people to become critically ill. We would like to reassure members of the public that this incident is being taken extremely seriously.”
The Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has hinted that the UK’s involvement in the World Cup in Russia could be threatened and there could be even more serious ramifications to come.
We asked some of the leading experts on espionage all the burning questions about this case – and their warnings are pretty severe. Here’s what Professor Anthony Glees, a former Home Office adviser, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, and author of six books on British and international intelligence, and Russia expert Andrew S. Bowen, from Boston College, and the recent author of Coercive Diplomacy and the Donbas: Explaining Russian Strategy in Eastern Ukraine, told us…
Based on other Russian spy attacks, what do you think is the most likely substance used in this case?
AG: “There are obvious parallels to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko where the rare and deadly poison Polonium 210 was administered as a liquid put into tea. Polonium 210 is a substance that is a by-product of nuclear fission and only states with advanced nuclear weapons capabilities can produce it. It is also very expensive. If this were a Russian/FSB/SVR hit, I would expect, if not Polonium 210 itself, then a very similar substance to have been administered.
“It’s clear that the response from the emergency services in Salisbury was formulated on the assumption that something like Polonium 210 was used. It is fatal and has no antidote. If it was used doctors will now be watching the victims die.”
AB: “The Russians have proven themselves adept at using a wide variety of methods and substances when conducting assassinations. The most famous instance was Polonium 210 to poison Litvinenko. Additionally, Alexander Perepilichny was eliminated using the supremely rare and difficult to trace Gelsemium, [his death] was initially thought to be a heart attack. But the use of poison goes far back, one of the most famous cases was the assassination of dissident Georgi Markov by Bulgarian secret police using ricin.”
Should the wider public be worried about this attack?
AG: “If it’s Polonium 210, definitely.”
AB: “No. The entire rationale of these operations is to kill the specific target and minimize blowback. If discovered, there will be repercussions, repercussions that will be magnified if unintentional civilians are killed. It is dangerously close to an act of aggression if Russian state agents are found to be responsible for the deaths of British civilians in the UK.”
Why do you think Skripal was targeted?
AB: “It is clear that since Putin came to power, Russians who are believed to have violated internal codes of conduct and acceptable limits are viewed as the highest threats and guilty of the utmost betrayal. What isn’t clear is why he was targeted now since he had been released [by Russia] in exchange for other Russian spies caught in the US. There are many hypotheses, but the response of the British government already lends credibility to the belief that the Kremlin had at least some role in the operation. In many ways this is a violation of the old espionage rules of the game.
“Largely, you do not assassinate the other sides spies or assets, if for no other reason that they can do the same [back to you]. As unusual as it may sound, spycraft comes with a multitude of unwritten rules and boundaries that are generally adhered too. For Russia it seems that many of these old rules are being re-written.”
When Russian spies want to kill someone, what’s their favourite method of assassination?
AG: “’Wet jobs’ as they are called, when carried out in the West, are best carried out by poison or a drug that renders victims unconscious but disappears from the blood stream very quickly.”
AB: “The simple answer is whatever gets the job done. Recently, there have been more instances of poisoning, but history has shown a wide variety of tools being used to conduct assassinations. Two GRU (military intelligence) agents were arrested by policy in Doha after they were accused of planting a car bomb and killing former insurgent leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Even Chechen dissidents have been shot to death in Turkey, and a Russian banker (German Gorbunstov) long accused of money laundering was the subject of an attempted shooting assassination.
“Rather than a specific method, the variation is more often on the professionalism of the killers. Russia not only has a multitude of security agencies that compete for the Kremlin’s attention and to prove their worth (FSB, SVR, GRU), but connections to organised crime. They’ve proven adept at using organised crime networks as subcontractors.”
How common are these attacks? Do they happen in the UK and Europe more often than we know?
AG: “Perhaps. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
AB: “The nature of clandestine activities is that we only know about those that fail or are unlucky enough to be uncovered. There is no way to know the actual number of assassinations, much less attempts. For Russia, based on history, it is clear that their number is probably higher than other nations. But an added benefit to Russia is that regardless of actual suspicion, any death or ill fortune that befalls someone connected to the Kremlin now has questions as to whether it was a natural death or assassination.”
Does Britain carry out similar secret attacks in Russia and around the world?
AB: “Britain and the West do carry out assassinations, but those are largely relegated to conflict zones such as the Middle East or Afghanistan. For the West, the targets are primarily terrorists, and the weapons of choice these days are airstrikes and drones. Assassinations are tools of last resort and reserved for those representing the greatest threats. Defectors and former spies spilling secrets to Moscow aren’t the greatest security threat to the West (barring Edward Snowden), and there is little to be gained from poisoning dissidents on the streets of European capitals.”
Why did former spy Skripal use his real name in the UK?
AG: “This would be most unusual for a defector or double agent who would be given a new identity. It’s possible he had one, but decided to get rid of it. Oleg Gordievsky [former colonel of the KGB who was a secret agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service] did in 1990 when he thought the threat from the KGB no longer existed. But he also changed his appearance – I met him in 1986 and he looked different.”
How important is this kind of incident compared to cyber warfare and election interference carried out by Russia?
AG: “Very significant. If, and it’s still a big if, this is Russia, this will signal the start of a new Cold War with most grave consequences for all of us.”
AB: “The question is: who is the audience? These assassinations aren’t designed to sway a susceptible western public or influence policy in London and DC, they are designed to intimidate Russians that have fallen out of favor and defected. Additionally, they serve as a stark reminder to all those current Russians who are considering defying the Kremlin and speaking out against the Kremlin to western authorities. Different tools for different messages.”
(Images: iStock / Rex)