To pedestrians passing outside the Maltings shopping center in Salisbury, England, on the afternoon of March 4, the pair slumped on a bench appeared to be another tragic case of opioid overdose. The younger woman was unconscious, having lost control of her bodily functions, and was propped against the older man, himself twitching and mumbling in an incoherent manner. But as police arrived at the scene and identified the victims, it soon became clear that this was not an accidental narcotics overdose.
The man, 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, was a former colonel in Russia's military intelligence service (known as the GRU) and had been recruited by Britain's foreign intelligence service (MI6) in the 1990s. He had come to the United Kingdom in 2010 as part of a high-profile spy swap. The woman next to him was his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, who had come to Salisbury from Russia to visit her father. Indeed, as police officers began to collapse after coming into contact with the pair, it quickly became evident that this was yet another case in which a former Russian intelligence officer was poisoned in the United Kingdom. And with this latest attack, Russia under President Vladimir Putin is letting the intelligence world know that it is changing the rules: Betrayal can make you and your family a target, even if you're no longer in the game.
The Vengeance Motive
Just over a week later, on March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament that investigators have identified the poison used against the Skripals as one belonging to the Novichok group of specialized nerve agents. The use of a military-grade chemical agent linked to Russian weapons development laboratories marks a clear trail back to Moscow. While it took 10 years for London to officially accuse the Kremlin over the poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, it took little over a week for May to officially blame Russia in the Skripal attack. London's quick reaction is likely by design: It is clear that Russia wanted the world to know it was behind this attempted assassination. Many have speculated that the attack is driven by a need for revenge, and while that may play some part, I believe the Kremlin had a much more timely motive for sanctioning the attack.
According to press reports, it appears that MI6 recruited Skripal in the early 1990s, perhaps while he was a GRU officer in Spain. He then spied for the British until his arrest in 2004. According to The Independent newspaper, he had left the GRU in 1999 and taken a position at the Russian Foreign Ministry — another prime target for British intelligence — until leaving the government and going into business in 2003. He was arrested in a highly publicized operation in 2004 and convicted in 2006. Skripal was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his treachery, which purportedly involved identifying GRU officers to his British handlers, among other things.
His relatively short prison sentence is an interesting fact in this case. In the past, many Russian intelligence officers caught conducting espionage for the United States or other foreign powers were executed after being convicted. For example, Maj. Gen. Dmitri Polyakov, also a GRU officer, was executed in 1988 after being convicted of spying for the United States. (He had been betrayed by Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer who spied for Russia.) Valery Martynov, Boris Yuzhin and Sergei Motorin are three other intelligence officers who were executed after Ames divulged their identities to his Russian masters. Incidentally, turncoat FBI agent Robert Hanssen also apparently provided the identities of these three agents to his handlers in Russia's foreign intelligence agency, the SVR.
While there were rumors that Skripal was somehow linked to the recent work of former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who compiled a highly controversial dossier alleging cooperation between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Kremlin, those allegations appear unfounded. Skripal does not look to have been actively engaged in any controversial espionage work against Russia that would have placed him in the Kremlin's crosshairs.
The targeting of personnel exchanged in spy swaps — and their families — is a long-standing taboo.
So, if Skripal's treachery decades ago was deemed serious enough to warrant his death today, why didn't the Russians simply execute him in 2006? Even if they chose to hold him as bait for a future spy swap — which he ultimately was — why was he not dealt a far more severe punishment? Thirteen years seems a paltry sentence for espionage deemed egregious enough to merit assassination many years later. Because of this, I don't believe that Skripal was attacked solely because of his treason.
The State of Intelligence
To understand the true reason for the attack, we must consider the current intelligence environment first. After the ascension of former KGB officer and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Vladimir Putin to Russia's presidency in 2000, we witnessed a dramatic resurgence of Russian domestic and foreign intelligence efforts. By the mid-2000s, Russia's intelligence agencies had become far more assertive not only in their collection activities, but also in their wet operations — assassinations and other dirty jobs. Opponents of the Kremlin at home and abroad began to die. And many of these operations, including the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB officer Litvinenko, were deliberately brazen. The use of a rare radioactive isotope (polonium-210) in the Litvinenko murder was akin to leaving a calling card at the scene of a crime. There are far more subtle ways to kill someone, and Russia frequently employs such methods. Thanks to the elaborate means used, it's not hard to conclude that the Kremlin wanted to make it clear that it was responsible for killing Litvinenko. Likewise, I believe that the use of a rare nerve agent in the Skripal attack was intentional — and another example of the Russians leaving a "calling card."
And these wet operations haven't been confined to Moscow or London; enemies of the Kremlin have been assassinated in Ukraine, Turkey, the Middle East and even the United States. Such attacks are also unlikely to end anytime soon. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow in February 2015, and former Russian Press Minister and Putin confidant Mikhail Lesin was bludgeoned to death in a Washington, D.C., hotel room in November 2015, after he reportedly ran afoul of the Kremlin.
Of course, intelligence agencies in the West have duly noted this aggression, as well as the Kremlin's very active hacking efforts and information operations. While these cyber activities are increasingly well-known in the United States, Russian intelligence agencies have also been directing information operations against Ukraine, the United Kingdom — ahead of the Brexit vote — and in several other European countries, often ahead of elections. Indeed, the Russians are directly attempting to foment discord and dissension in the West.
In response, Western intelligence agencies have increased their efforts to recruit Russian intelligence officers. Especially sought-after are those with knowledge of programs directed against the West, and those who can help agencies understand — and get ahead — of Russian operations. This has led to an increase in Russian counterintelligence efforts. In January 2017, a number of FSB information security officers and some members of a prominent hacking group were arrested and charged with treason for apparently providing information on the Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.
Putin is outspoken in his criticism of Russians who spy for foreign governments and has even made direct threats.
The Russian president is outspoken in his criticism of Russians who spy for foreign governments and issues threats in unsubtle terms, making statements such as "traitors will kick the bucket." In the wake of the Skripal attack, Russian state media have also adopted this theme. For example, Kirill Kleymenov, a news presenter for state TV's primary station, Channel One, said in a March 7 broadcast, "I have a warning: Being a traitor is one of the most dangerous professions in the world." He also noted with a bit of sardonic humor that it was dangerous for Russians who turn on the motherland to move to England because they tend to die under mysterious circumstances. Referring specifically to the United Kingdom, Kleymenov commented: "Something is not right there. Maybe it's the climate. But in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with a grave outcome. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows."
Some have expressed a belief that Russia wasn't behind the Skripal attack because people who were pardoned and involved in spy exchanges (and who do not return to active intelligence work against their home country) are generally considered safe from retribution. The argument is that the attack on Skripal would be in contravention of long-established espionage protocols — such activity could destroy the concept of spy swaps. However, given the brazenness with which Russian intelligence has been operating under Putin, and the lack of real consequences for these bold actions, there doesn't appear to be any reason for them to abide by these rules. Indeed, they are rewriting them for the current intelligence war as they please.
And as Russia continues this exchange with the West, it wants to remind its intelligence officers that betraying the Kremlin is treacherous. And even if personnel make it out of Russia, Western intelligence agencies cannot protect them. The long arm of Russian intelligence will reach out and kill them — and their families, which is another long-standing taboo. This is the chilling message sent by the Skripal attack. And it has been received loud and clear, even if Skripal and his daughter ultimately manage to survive the attack.