How a Russian Defector Became a Warning from Moscow to London
The two men who got on a flight from Moscow to London didn’t look like assassins. They were dressed inconspicuously, in jeans and fleece jackets. Their names were Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. At least that is what their Russian passports said. Both were about forty. Neither seemed suspicious. Businessmen? Or tourists maybe? The plane trundled down the icy runway. In Moscow the temperature was cold and raw. It had fallen below -10ºC, not unusual for early March. In Britain it had been snowing. The pair had brought woolly hats. And a couple of satchels. One of them contained a bottle of what looked like French perfume. In the event that they were stopped at UK customs, the Nina Ricci fragrance might be explained away as a gift—a gallant one, with “Made in France” on the box.
Aeroflot flight SU2588 touched down at Gatwick Airport, 30 miles south of central London. It was Friday, March 2, 2018, and midafternoon. The two Russians made their way to passport control. Boshirov had dark hair and a goatee; Petrov was clean-shaven, his hairline thinning as middle age set in. We can only guess their mood. If they were nervous, no official noticed.
The British security service has a database of persons of interest—terrorists, criminals, fraudsters. Apparently Petrov and Boshirov weren’t on it. At immigration their passports and visas were checked and they were nodded through. What the UK border force didn’t know is that the visitors from Moscow were actually spies—ones working for a hostile foreign power.
They were career officers with Russian military intelligence. Colonels, even. Their real names were Anatoliy Chepiga (Boshirov) and Alexander Mishkin (Petrov). Their service had created a fake identity, and helpfully in the best traditions of Cold War spycraft had supplied them with real passports that supported their fictitious cover.
Chepiga and Mishkin had come to London on a secret mission. They were there to murder someone.
Probably this wasn’t their first such assignment, known by the KGB as mokroye delo or “wet work.” Naturally, details of such activities are hard to come by, but travel records show a number of trips to Europe. This “work” had taken them to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva. Their employer back in Moscow was the GRU, or Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye. Full title: the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
The GRU is the most powerful and secretive of Russia’s three spy agencies. It’s military, under the command of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff. Back in the USSR, the army-led GRU and the spy-led KGB were often in conflict. Some of this rivalry spilled into the post-Communist era of Boris Yeltsin and Putin. The GRU was in competition with the FSB, the KGB’s domestic successor, which Putin headed before becoming prime minister in 1999, and then president. And with the SVR, Moscow’s foreign intelligence agency, the former KGB’s first directorate, operating under diplomatic cover.
The FSB handled security at home. It sniffed out and quashed opposition to the Kremlin, arresting students and political activists, locking up bloggers and protesters, and maintaining order. From time to time it carried out foreign operations. Most took place in the “near abroad”—within neighboring former Soviet republics, which Moscow continued to view as parts of its imperium.The assassins who arrived in London in the spring of 2018 were not the first hit men sent by Moscow.
The GRU, by contrast, was global. It dealt with external threats. Its mandate was everywhere. The organization’s activities ranged from traditional military deployments, in war zones such as Syria, to coups and invasions. Its officers saw themselves as part of a glorious tradition, stretching back to Russia’s battles against Napoleon and Crimea, through to the First and Second World Wars—the latter the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it—and the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan.
Murder was something of a throwback to the GRU’s 20th-century heyday. The revolutionary state of Vladimir Lenin and its various successors had plenty of experience in political killing. Lenin, Stalin, even the ostensibly reformist regime of Khrushchev, had all sent agents to snuff out “traitors.” These deaths were seen as necessary to protect a noble and progressive state besieged by capitalist enemies. And by nationalist ones. Moscow hunted down Ukrainian leaders abroad, including Stepan Bandera, killed in Munich in 1959 by a KGB assassin using a cyanide spray pistol hidden in a newspaper.
In the late 1980s Gorbachev ended such killings. It was a new age in which Russia and the West were friends. The next Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, confirmed and expanded this collaboration. Under Putin, however, murders stealthily resumed. Journalists, political critics, an ex-deputy prime minister turned irritant . . . all died in opaque ways. A former KGB officer himself, Putin had a particular loathing for those who betrayed the Fatherland. These people were scum. Traitors got what was coming to them, he said.
Arriving at Gatwick, Chepiga and Mishkin picked up their travel suitcases. They strolled through a green corridor that said “Nothing to Declare.” An automatic camera captured them exiting through parallel lanes. They headed into the capital. No one came after them.
So far, so easy. Britain—it appeared—was soft and weak. Despite a string of London–Moscow spy scandals, a country described unflatteringly on Russian television as “foggy Albion” was unprepared and sleepy. True, British spooks had picked up an unusual level of activity at the Russian embassy in Kensington. But this hadn’t been connected to the two travelers with backpacks, riding the subway like anybody else.
The pair emerged into the daylight and went to the City Stay Hotel in Bow, East London. They were staying for two nights. The place was anonymous and a little shabby: Asian receptionist, a worn swivel chair behind a desk, ordinary rooms, white-painted walls. Next door is a Barclays Bank. When I stopped by, a woman in a headscarf was in a line at an ATM. Buses, cars, and taxis trundled past. There was a perpetual traffic rumble.
The neighborhood has a light railway station, a car rental company, and a Bangladeshi corner shop selling fruit, vegetables, and halal chicken. A statue of the Victorian prime minister Gladstone adorns the local church.
Close to the spies’ accommodation is a police station and a magistrates’ court. The Edwardian-era outpost of the Metropolitan Police is no longer open to the public. On the wall is a plaque commemorating the district’s Roman heritage. And a community noticeboard, which in the light of events looks faintly ridiculous. One message reads “Don’t let a pickpocket spoil your day.” Another shows a group of watchful meerkats peering out among urban tower blocks. The board says nothing about visiting assassins, or how you might spot one.
The next day, Saturday, March 3, the two GRU officers went to London’s Waterloo Station and got on a train. Their destination was the West of England and Salisbury, home of the man they had been sent to kill. Police believe that their trip that Saturday was reconnaissance. Chepiga took a pair of black gloves. They spent a couple of hours there and went back to the hotel.
The person meant to die was called Sergei Skripal.
Skripal was living quietly in Salisbury, a place where nothing much happened. His personal story was almost incredible. He arrived in Britain in 2010 via a US-brokered spy swap. Skripal was the least well known of a small group of double agents and defectors now living in the UK and America.
The most famous, Oleg Gordievsky, betrayed the KGB for ideological reasons and did enormous damage to the Soviet espionage machine. He lived in Surrey. If a list existed of “traitors” the Kremlin might wish to kill, Gordievsky’s name was surely at the top. It was closely followed by that of Oleg Kalugin, the longtime head of KGB operations in the US and a prominent critic of his old agency and of Putin. Kalugin was based in the state of Maryland, not far from Washington, DC.
Skripal was a lesser figure. He had begun his career as a Soviet paratrooper, taking part in daring clandestine missions in China and Afghanistan. In 1979 the GRU recruited him. In the 1980s Skripal worked for the GRU on the island of Malta, attached to the Soviet embassy there under diplomatic cover. By the time he got his next foreign posting—to Madrid, in Spain—the USSR had collapsed.
As Skripal saw it, the Soviet state’s demise invalidated his obligations to it. Everyone was trying to survive in the new freemarket economy. Skripal sought to invest in a Malaga hotel. Then something better came up: an approach from a pleasant businessman who charmed Skripal’s wife, Liudmila, and bought presents for their kids. One day the businessman let it be known he had “friends” in the British government.
Skripal agreed to work for MI6.
The arrangement lasted eight years. So far as we know, Skripal was the US and Britain’s only GRU mole. He knew little about operational matters, but willingly handed over details of the GRU’s hierarchy and structure—what MI6 teaches its new joiners to call ORBAT, or order of battle. There were meetings with his British handlers in Spain, Portugal, Malta, Italy, and Turkey. Recalled to Moscow, Skripal continued to communicate with London. He wrote in invisible ink in the margins of a Russian novel. His wife delivered it to MI6 during a vacation in Spain.
This was risky stuff, done for $3,000 per meeting from Her Majesty’s budget-minded government. Skripal appears to have been an un-Gordievsky: he did it for the cash. In 2004 the FSB got a tip-off from Spain and arrested him. He was convicted and imprisoned. Six years later he was picked up from his penal colony, flown by special plane to Austria, and swapped on the tarmac of Vienna International Airport for a group of Russian “sleeper agents” caught red-handed by the FBI. A throwback to the Cold War or a sign of things to come? Skripal left his homeland with a presidential pardon.
After so long in exile, Skripal might have been forgiven for thinking himself safe. Who would remember him? The colleagues he had betrayed—if you could call it that—were mostly retired or dead. The world had moved on. Perhaps his British minders who from time to time took him to a pub assured him that all was well.
The GRU, however, is an unforgiving entity. It has its own code of honor and brotherhood. And a good memory.
That Saturday, Skripal collected his daughter, Yulia, from London’s Heathrow International Airport. A friend and ex-neighbor, Ross Cassidy, drove him to the airport. Yulia was visiting from Moscow. On the ride home Skripal and Yulia talked intently. At some point it became obvious that a black BMW was shadowing their car. Inside the vehicle was a woman with bleached blond hair and a man in his forties, Cassidy said.
The next morning, on Sunday, March 4, Chepiga and Mishkin repeated their journey—leaving early from their hotel in Bow and catching the 8:05 am train back to Salisbury. This was not reconnaissance. This time it was murder. According to police, the pair was carrying the French perfume bottle. It contained an unusual and terrible poison.
For a brief period after the fall of the Soviet Union the Chekists were out. (The name comes from the Cheka, Lenin’s first secret police, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission.) The elderly KGB plotters who carried out a coup in summer 1991 against Gorbachev found themselves under arrest. Democracy in the shape of Yeltsin seemed ascendant. After decades of totalitarian rule, Russians were free—albeit with their savings wiped out in the new economy.
All Soviet institutions were demoralized and in shambles, but the spies were intent on plotting a way back and were uniquely placed to do so. One of those who felt the loss of the USSR acutely was Putin, who had missed perestroika and instead spent communism’s twilight years in Dresden and East Germany as a first directorate officer. Returning in early 1990 to his home city of Leningrad (soon to be St. Petersburg), Putin reinvented himself as an aide to its new democratic mayor, Anatoliy Sobchak. Putin’s career took a sharp upward turn.
Power may have changed in Russia, but the system and its bureaucrats remained implacably Soviet in their thinking. Intelligence officers in London who had spent the Cold War fighting against what one called the “Dark Tower of the Soviet Union” believed that Moscow’s intentions were still bad. The difference was that in the early 1990s the cash-strapped Kremlin lacked the resources to do anything about it.
By the time Putin became president in 2000, this was no longer the case. Oil prices rose. The state budget grew. Funds flowed into Putin’s spy agencies, including the GRU, which in 2006 moved into a new headquarters building, known as the Aquarium, in downtown Moscow. Much of this happened while the West was preoccupied with other things—wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the specter of Islamist terrorism. Putin offered Russian citizens a social contract of sorts: greater prosperity in exchange for fewer rights.
At this point the US and its allies viewed Russia as a regional power that bullied its neighbors and engaged in domestic repression. It did not see Moscow as a rival, a superpower, or as a source of strategic concern. Washington was late to appreciate that Putin had his own vision of Russia’s place in the 21st century. A bigger and a darker one.
In 2007 Putin made his revisionist intentions known in a speech at a Munich security conference in Germany. He spoke shortly before standing down from the presidency, temporarily, in favor of his protégé Dmitry Medvedev. Putin attacked the US’s dominance of global affairs and reeled off a series of grudges: NATO expansion; Western “meddling” in Russia’s elections; nuclear treaty violations. Russia, he said, would no longer accept a “unipolar” world.
What that meant became clear. In Russia’s backyard the tanks started to roll—into Georgia, and into Ukraine, whose peninsular territory, Crimea, Moscow effortlessly stole in 2014. Across Europe—from Rome to Berlin and Prague—Putin rebooted old KGB ways of influence and political subversion. Secret military cells began to operate in Western Europe, the land of the enemy.
Historically, the Politburo had funded foreign Communist parties. In nations such as France and Italy, the postwar Communists were a significant force. Under Putin this support for the hard left continued. Western anti-imperialists opposed to American aggression often cheered Putin’s stance.
Increasingly, though, the Kremlin’s preferred international partners came from the populist far right—Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria, Marine Le Pen in France. They shared similar ideas: nationalism, sovereignty, power politics, and hostility toward immigrants. Moscow loaned assistance and sometimes cash to candidates who might disrupt the status quo, and discredit democracy and the European Union along the way. A new far-right internationale began to coalesce.
Putin wasn’t a master of influence or an all-knowing villain sitting behind a console with flashing buttons. He was an opportunist. He was ruthless and well practiced. His attempts to play God in other people’s elections often didn’t come off. Moscow’s practical support for favored external politicians fell into the category of let’s try it and see. And if Russia got caught in the act, so what? That played to Moscow’s advantage too. It showed strength to the enemy and instilled pride among those at home.
The Russian president’s meddling reached an apogee in the 2016 US presidential election. Putin’s candidate was Donald Trump. Moscow assiduously aided and encouraged his long-shot campaign to take the White House. If Trump was surprised by his improbable victory, so was the Kremlin. Moscow’s expectations had been more modest: to undermine Hillary Clinton’s future presidency and to fuel American turmoil.
The idea that Russia had helped Trump win was endlessly contested and disputed, not least by the president himself and by his Republican allies and base.
Trump dismissed any suggestion of collusion. He portrayed himself as a victim of a witch hunt and “deep state” plot by his own scoundrel-led intelligence agencies. Still, the notion that Trump had solicited assistance from a foreign power to get one over a hated political opponent didn’t go away. Indeed, it led directly to impeachment when the president did something similar again—not with Russia this time, but with its embattled neighbor Ukraine. And to acquittal by Republican senators, after a perfunctory nontrial.
Across Trump’s misbegotten presidency, the thesis that there was something odd about his relationship with Moscow failed to go away. Rather, it grew. The theme consumed national politics, network television, investigative journalism, and public life. Between 2017 and 2019 it was the subject of a special investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller—rather a disappointing and hamstrung one, as it turned out.
US intelligence agencies were all of one voice: Russia had sought to influence the 2016 vote. Quite possibly, the Kremlin’s operation had cost Clinton the election—a view Clinton shares. Inside the Kremlin, and Russia’s Duma or parliament, Trump’s victory was celebrated as a wondrous achievement. Was this the greatest espionage operation ever? The success of 2016 meant Russia was sure to return in 2020.The house had a porch. One or both of the killers headed toward it, detectives say, stealing up the driveway.
As in Soviet times, the Kremlin’s ambitions were international. They grew, as the US’s got smaller. From central Africa to leftist Latin America and Venezuela, through Syria and the Middle East, and across Ukraine and Europe, Moscow was building up a network of clients and military allies. It spread into a vacuum left by the Trump administration, as it retreated from the US’s traditional postwar power role and Pax Americana.
After twenty years in office, Putin was reshaping the world to his advantage. He was using the same plucky tactics favored by Yuri Andropov, the KGB’s chairman turned general secretary. They included trickery, deceit, law-breaking, withholding and concealing the truth, as well as large-scale disinformation, rolled out at home and abroad. As Lenin, quoted by Kalugin, put it, “There are no morals in politics. There is only expedience.”
There was a short-term objective: to get the US and the EU to drop economic sanctions against Russia. And a longer one: to create chaos and division within the West, not by starting from nowhere but through exploiting existing tensions and cleavages. The ultimate goal was to smash apart Western institutions and democracies. And to push other countries from the noncorrupt to the corrupt side of the ledger.
Under Putin and Trump, Russia and America began to resemble each other.
The two countries were very different, of course: one a kleptocracy run by a feudal-style KGB clique, the other a democracy still and the world’s indispensable power.
But there were worrisome similarities. Both presidents attacked journalists and “fake news,” lied without shame, propagated disinformation, and used the postmodern shtick that the truth was impossible to know. Moscow came up with false narratives that Trump and his Republican defenders willingly repeated, such as the idea that Ukraine rather than Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
The two men put their own personal and political interests before those of the nations they were meant to serve. Friends and relatives were more important than institutions or the law; the boundary between statecraft and moneymaking opportunities became increasingly fuzzy. It was hard to look at Trump’s dealings with certain countries—Saudi Arabia and Turkey spring to mind—and not conclude that US foreign policy was somehow for sale.
Trump would exploit the might of the White House and the Justice Department to wage a political smear campaign against a rival, the former US vice president Joe Biden, and against other perceived “enemies.” Putin enriched KGB cronies via lucrative state contracts and used state poison laboratories and secret soldiers to wipe out “traitors” living abroad. These were rogue deeds. They took place under the cover of foreign and security policy.
Shadow states, if you like, where the machinery of government was used for private benefit and personal enrichment.
The assassins who arrived in London in the spring of 2018 were not the first hit men sent by Moscow. Or even by Putin. History was repeating itself. Eleven years earlier two different killers had flown in on a similar route. They had met with a troublesome dissident and former FSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko. And then poisoned him with a cup of radioactive green tea.
This operation had taken place in a Mayfair hotel, the Millennium, practically under the nose of the then US embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. It was an FSB plot. Litvinenko’s killers—Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi—had brought with them from Moscow something portable and lethal. Litvinenko was dosed with polonium-210, an invisible, deadly isotope. He died three weeks later, in the hospital.
Putin evidently was not fond of Britain. In the 2000s the UK refused to extradite leading critics of his regime who had fled their homeland and sought asylum in London. From Moscow’s perspective, successive prime ministers from Tony Blair onward had rolled out the red carpet for troublemakers and crooks intent on upsetting constitutional order.
London’s response to the Litvinenko outrage was modest: four Russian diplomats were slung out of the country, and many words of indignation were offered. None of this would have troubled Putin. His method was to wait for a reaction—and to carry on emboldened if it failed to materialize. A public inquiry found in 2016 that Putin had “probably” approved the murder, together with his FSB spy chief. The KGB had a euphemism for this kind of hit: fizicheskoye ustraneniye or “physical removal.”
Chepiga and Mishkin had turned up with a different but equally nasty toxin. Traces were later found in their hotel room. The modified “perfume bottle” smuggled through UK customs contained a powerful nerve agent. Its generic name was novichok, a Russian word derived from novy or new, best translated as “newcomer.” Novichok was a chemical weapon.
In the 1980s a group of Soviet scientists created a new class of chemical agents, more deadly than any previously known. They worked at a closed laboratory near Volgograd. There they synthesized organophosphates. One agent—known as A-234—stood out. Its effects on humans were ruinous. They included convulsions, paralysis, respiratory and heart failure, continuous vomiting, and diarrhea. Death was pretty certain.
Novichok was now being deployed as a weapon. By coincidence or not, the UK government’s chemical and biological research facility, Porton Down, was six miles down the road from Salisbury. The city was close to several military bases and home to various ex-service personnel. It was conservative, provincial, not especially affluent, and surrounded by sheep and green countryside.
The Salisbury that Chepiga and Mishkin came back to was hardly in a state of high alert. Two months previously the local Wiltshire council had turned on a new CCTV surveillance system. Thus far it had caught nothing more dastardly than a pair of teenage idiots stealing lights from a bike left at the local market.
After arriving back at Salisbury railway station, the GRU colonels headed left. They started walking down Wilton Road. At 11:58 am they passed a gasoline station, where they were recorded on CCTV: two grim and solitary figures carrying a backpack, walking side by side, and framed by the slate gray of road and sidewalk. The day was dull and damp.
Finding Skripal did not require the ingenuity of Sherlock Holmes. In 2011 Skripal had bought a house in his own name. He was a man of regular habits—he drank in pubs; bought scratch-offs from a Turkish-owned corner shop; and visited the cemetery where his wife and son were both buried.
According to police, the assassins headed toward Skripal’s home: redbrick, 1970s-built, semidetached. The most likely route would have taken them through a covered and densely tree-lined footpath and into a suburban avenue. Skripal’s house was around the corner, up an incline to the right. There were roses in his front garden; behind, a meadow of brambles and hawthorn. From the upper floor you could see Salisbury Cathedral and its spire.
The house had a porch. One or both of the killers headed toward it, detectives say, stealing up the driveway. The killers applied novichok to the front door handle. Mission done, they left—apparently unobserved. CCTV recorded them again at 1:05 p.m. on Fisherton Street, heading toward the train station. Their body language was different: they seemed relaxed, insouciant, Mishkin grinning and making a joke. By this point they were behaving like the day-outers they would later claim to be.
Soon afterward Skripal and his daughter left their house at 47 Christie Miller Road. They shut the front door and got into Skripal’s BMW-3. From there they drove into the city center. Skripal parked next to a supermarket, Sainsbury’s. They had lunch in an Italian restaurant, Zizzi’s, and shared some garlic bread. It was Sunday afternoon. Everything was normal.
And then it wasn’t. The pair began to feel violently unwell.
They made it as far as the Maltings, a redbrick shopping center, with a grassy area and children’s play park. Next to it was the Avon River. Normally you could see trout, but the melting snow had made the shallow waters turbid. A few people were milling around. This was the modern end of a medieval city. There were shops, a wishing well, and a wooden bench.
It was here that passersby first noticed something odd: a gray-haired man in his sixties cradling a younger woman. She was slumped and unresponsive. The man looked out of it.
Skripal was sitting on the bench bolt upright, rocking back and forth, eyes closed. He appeared to be talking to himself, as if in prayer, witnesses said. One of the pair had been sick. Drugs, perhaps, or an overdose? And yet something didn’t fit with that: the man and the younger woman looked prosperous. At 4:15 pm the police arrived and summoned backup. A helicopter took Yulia Skripal to Salisbury District Hospital, her father following by ambulance.
For a little longer, the case seemed routine. Officers in regular clothes sealed off the spot and began collecting evidence. The first reporters arrived from the Salisbury Journal. Rain fell. It grew dark. Meanwhile, the assassins were heading home. They arrived at Waterloo Station at 4:45 pm. Three hours later they were at Heathrow International Airport. By 10:30 pm they had left London on an Aeroflot flight for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, never to return. The GRU’s latest brazen hit was a textbook success. Or so it appeared.
It took about 24 hours before the British state began to grasp the scale of the crisis. Something terrible had happened to the Skripals. But what? The victims were in no position to explain.
They were in critical condition, unconscious, heavily sedated, and pumped full of atropine by two duty doctors recently trained in nerve agent cases.
Skripal’s backstory and his links with MI6 were clearly sources of worry. So too was the news coming from officers and paramedics who had gone to the bench and to Skripal’s home. They were reporting troubling symptoms: itchy eyes and breathing difficulties. The loss of muscle function in the victims suggested a nerve agent of some kind.
Biomedical samples were sent to Porton Down, where scientists carried out tests using spectroscopy and chromatography equipment. The result, when it came that Monday, was alarming. A rare nerve agent had poisoned the Skripals. It had been developed in the Soviet Union. It was 100 percent pure, military-grade—meaning manufactured in a special lab.
It was not difficult to guess which country had the motive, means, and swagger to carry out another assassination on British soil. For SIS, Britain’s secret intelligence service, also known as MI6, this was a full-blown emergency that encompassed some difficult issues. Should the agency have done more to protect Skripal? Could his poisoning have been anticipated?
Meanwhile urgent steps had to be taken, such as increasing security for the other Russian defectors living in the UK. British spies who normally took their weekends off found themselves working around the clock. The police—first the local force, then Scotland Yard’s counterterrorism branch—launched an investigation into the attempted murders. A complex search began for the killers and possible accomplices.“They really want to fuck the UK and fuck with British minds. They don’t care about being discovered. It sends a signal that we have no respect for you.”
Hanging over all this were two questions. First, why had Moscow targeted Skripal? Second, why now? This was eight years after he arrived, and on the eve of Russia’s presidential election and a summer World Cup. Nobody was in any doubt that Putin would win the poll. Nonetheless, his election victory would now be staged against the background of international confrontation.
It was hard to be definitive about Moscow’s motive. Since Skripal had arrived in Britain, he had traveled to the US, the Baltics, and the Czech Republic. He had given lectures to friendly Western intelligence agencies, curious to learn about the GRU from the inside. Other former spies who had swapped sides did the same. This occasional work wasn’t sufficient in itself to provoke Moscow’s wrath. So was Skripal up to something else?
In exile Skripal had kept a low profile—in contrast to Litvinenko, who accused Putin in public and in print of lurid crimes. Indeed, Skripal appeared to approve of Putin and Russia’s recent foreign adventures.
In summer 2017 the BBC’s Mark Urban called at Skripal’s home. He noted a stack of jigsaw puzzles, an Airfix model of HMS Victory, and a miniversion of an English country cottage on a bookshelf. This was a gift from the MI6 officer who two decades earlier had recruited him in Spain.
Skripal spent much of the day watching Perviy Kanal—Russia’s foremost state propaganda channel—and backed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Skripal was an “unashamed Russian nationalist,” Urban concluded.
Whatever Moscow’s motive, murder was a Kremlin specialty. In the pre-Litvinenko past its agents had used poisons, bullets, and bombs hidden in cakes—not to mention the ice pick that did for Leon Trotsky, or the ingenious ricin pellet used to fell Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident and writer poisoned in 1978 on London Bridge. In that operation, the KGB provided technical assistance following a request from Bulgarian comrades.
These killings sat on a spectrum. Some were invisible. Victims were silenced by injection under the guise of hospital treatment, according to Stalin’s former special operations chief, Pavel Sudoplatov. The file would say “heart attack.” Others were showy, and deliberately terrifying. All the better if the dying man had a few final moments to realize what was happening, the last face before him that of Comrade Stalin.
The attack on Skripal was in the second category. There was nothing subtle or delicate about using a nerve agent in a crowded civilian area. It was an act of stunning recklessness. The effect, as the GRU must have known, was to inculcate terror in the local population, and more widely among the Brits and their European and American allies. The choice of novichok was deliberate, a ghoulish calling card.
Officially the Kremlin would deny involvement. Clearly, though, the trail led to Moscow. As one former MI6 officer reasoned, “You can’t conceal this. It was intended to be known.”The gruesome attack on Skripal was a timely reminder of the penalties involved in treachery.
The message of the Skripal affair, then, was directed at the British government and its spy chiefs. It could be boiled down to two words: “Fuck you.” A former special adviser to a US president told me, “They really want to fuck the UK and fuck with British minds. They don’t care about being discovered. It sends a signal that we have no respect for you.”
But the message of Salisbury was also bound up with events in America and the election of Trump. A large number of people knew something of the Kremlin’s secret operation to help Trump win. Senior Russian bureaucrats, high-ranking GRU and FSB officers, technical guys, diplomats and ambassadors working abroad, oligarchs who played the role of intermediary . . . it was a substantial list. Only Putin and a few around him knew everything. But many people knew something.
The gruesome attack on Skripal was a timely reminder of the penalties involved in treachery. The ultimate audience for this deed was the Russian elite, and any Russian in the GRU or elsewhere thinking of cooperating with Special Prosecutor Mueller, the CIA, or Western intelligence generally. Decoded, Skripal was poisoned to preempt further treason.
A new life in Virginia or Florida under an assumed identity might seem beguiling. Yes, you’d get a pool, a barbecue, and a condo! A better existence in America! But, the message said, the GRU was patient and all-seeing. It knew what your kids were up to. It would come for you at a time of its own choosing. And as you looked away it would deliver a mighty blow.
From Shadow State by Luke Harding. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Luke Harding.