British Intelligence: Yes, Russian Spy Was Poisoned by Kremlin
By John R. Schindler • 04/10/18 1:39pm
Russian President Vladimir Putin. ANATOLY MALTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
When the histories of Cold War 2.0 are written, the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal on March 4 of this year will appear as a turning point. With that act of madcap aggression, unleashing a military-grade nerve agent in a provincial English city, the Kremlin made its lawlessness plain to see. No longer was President Vladimir Putin making any effort to hide his regime’s gangster nature. With the failed hit on Skripal and his daughter, both of whom nearly died, Moscow signaled to the world that it could do whatever it liked.
There is a happy ending of sorts. Today, after five weeks in the hospital, much of it in intensive care, 33-year-old Yulia Skripal was released to continue her recovery at an undisclosed location. Better yet, reports indicate that her father, who was not expected to recover, in fact is doing so at a faster rate than anticipated. Word in intelligence circles is that the Skripals will be sent to the United States under assumed identities to live out the rest of their lives where the Kremlin can’t find them. One hopes they are luckier than Mikhail Lesin.
It remains mysterious why the Kremlin decided to murder a 66-year-old former Russian military intelligence officer (and mole for British intelligence) who had been traded to Britain in 2010, giving no appearance of having much to do with espionage anymore. Skripal eschewed the lights of London for the quieter—and, he thought, safer—English countryside. Rumors that Skripal became a target by getting involved in an investigation of Cambridge Analytica, the seedy big-data firm that has gotten itself in hot water over our 2016 election, remain tantalizingly unconfirmed.
It’s even more mysterious why the Kremlin chose such an unsubtle killing method as Novichok, a nerve agent invented by the Soviet Union in the 1980s—to say nothing of the assassins placing the lethal poison in a public place (reportedly on Skripal’s door handle) in the middle of Salisbury. Even for the Putin regime, which has previously used obscure poisons and radioactive agents to assassinate its exiled opponents in Britain, the Skripal hit was extraordinary in its murderous cheek.
It didn’t take long for the British government to assess that Novichok had been used, which was tantamount to the Kremlin leaving a calling card at the crime scene. To Moscow’s unpleasant surprise, the government of Prime Minister Theresa May suddenly grew a backbone, calling out the Kremlin for its shockingly aggressive act in Salisbury. To Putin’s astonishment, May was able to get the backing of the European Union and even President Donald Trump, whose normal Putinphilia was put on temporary hold as the United States joined in the unprecedented expulsions of Russian “diplomats” in Western countries. By declaring 60 Russian spies personae non gratae and closing Moscow’s consulate in Seattle, Washington sent an indelible message.
True to form, the Kremlin reacted with hysterical denunciations of Britain and the West. Its usual propaganda outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, went into overdrive. Moscow’s position has veered among myriad ridiculous conspiracy theories—the attempted assassination was a British “false flag” operation and/or it was really an American plot to abduct the Skripals—but the Kremlin’s core position, that poor, innocent Russia is the victim of sinister Western malfeasance, has stood firm. As evidence of Moscow’s hand behind the failed hit has mounted, Russia’s official media coverage has grown increasingly shrill and mythical.
What’s significant, however, is that the sudden souring of relations with the West since March 4 clearly took the Kremlin wholly by surprise. After getting away with so many outrageous crimes in the West, especially in Britain, it seems not to have occurred to Putin and his Chekist retinue that there might be a limit, somewhere, to what London could tolerate.
With some shock, then, recently the Kremlin has conceded that we’re in Cold War 2.0, to use the term I coined just over four years ago after Putin stole Crimea. Last week, Sergei Naryshkin publicly accused the West of “unprecedented hypocrisy” in the Skripal case “to justify their hegemony.” He went on: “Countering the inexistent Russian threat has become fixation in Washington. It’s grown to such a scale and has acquired such silly features that we can speak about a return to the dark pages of the Cold War.” Since Naryshkin isn’t some obscure Moscow functionary, rather the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, this is an official Kremlin pronouncement, finally, that Cold War 2.0 is upon us.
Central to Moscow’s disinformation about the Skripal hit is the notion that London and Washington are simply making things up to blame the blameless Russians for. How, after all, could Prime Minister May be so certain that the Kremlin was behind the attempted assassination, notwithstanding the use of a nerve-agent that could only have come from Russia?
To anyone versed in how high-level, high-stakes diplomacy operates in the real world, it’s obvious that London is in possession of solid intelligence to back up its claim of Kremlin culpability in the March 4 attack. Theresa May’s insistence that Russian intelligence is to blame for the attack on the Skripals is the tell that the Brits know something important behind the scenes, the sort of highly classified information that can’t be shared with the public. But what?
Finally, we may have an answer to that vital question. Yesterday, The Express, a British tabloid, reported a bombshell: British spies on Cyprus had intercepted a series of secret Kremlin messages that were related to the assassination:
On the day of the poisonings, March 4, one was sent from a location near Damascus in Syria to “an official” in Moscow including the phrase “the package has been delivered” and saying that two individuals had “made a successful egress.” This prompted a young Flight Lieutenant to recall a separate message that had been intercepted and discounted on the previous day.
Furthermore, according to The Express, the secret messages were forwarded to Britain, where Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, Britain’s NSA partner and equivalent) realized their significance and forwarded them to Prime Minister May. This explosive intelligence was also shared with the White House. Moreover, these top-secret intercepts were but one piece—albeit a crucial one—of the classified information London possesses about what happened in Salisbury.
So, to break this down, a British signals intelligence site in Cyprus intercepted a series of secret messages between Damascus and Moscow that seemed to indicate Russian foreknowledge and responsibility for what happened to Sergei and Yulia Skripal. But is any of this, well, true? Let’s discuss what we can confirm.
First, there really is a British SIGINT site in southern Cyprus, run by the British military for GCHQ, which currently goes by the euphemism Joint Service Signal Unit Cyprus. It has been there since the early days of the last Cold War, and over the last few decades it has provided a lot of useful intelligence for both GCHQ and NSA.
Second, thanks to its location, the Cyprus SIGINT site has good access to intelligence targets in the eastern Mediterranean, so its interception of Russian government communications—in this case, from one of Russia’s many spy bases around Damascus—is inherently plausible. Indeed, this is exactly the sort of high-value intelligence that Western SIGINT services look out for. Moreover, it’s very common in the espionage trade to intercept information, the importance of which only becomes clear a day or two after.
Therefore, we can conclude that The Express story has a ring of truth to it, and several friends inside the Five Eyes intelligence alliance have confirmed to me that it is true. There are also hints that other Western intelligence agencies intercepted Russian communications relevant to the Skripal hit, and those, likewise, have been shared with London and Washington.
British codebreakers are highly skilled, and this would hardly be the first time that London’s spies intercepted hush-hush foreign communications that changed the world. Back in early 1917, Royal Navy codebreakers got their hands on a bombshell secret German diplomatic cable—it would go down in history as the Zimmermann Telegram—which got the United States into the First World Warand altered the course of history. These more recent Cyprus intercepts may prove less earth-shaking, though the Kremlin’s official admission that we’re in Cold War 2.0 surely looms as a major historical event. Yet again, SIGINT has demonstrated why it has been the world’s most valuable intelligence source for more than a century.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst.
Poisoned Spy Is a Warning to the West, Courtesy of Putin
By John R. Schindler • 03/07/18 12:20pm
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images
It’s happened again. Another Russian spy who’s taken up residence in the West has been poisoned under mysterious circumstances. At this hour, he is in intensive care, his fate undetermined. Worse, his daughter was poisoned with him and likewise is in dire condition. To anyone acquainted with what the Kremlin terms wetwork, this all looks depressingly familiar.
His name is Sergei Skripal, and he is a 66-year-old pensioner who once was a career officer in Russian military intelligence, known as GRU. In the mid-1990s, he became a mole for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. Until he retired from GRU in 1999 as a colonel, Skripal passed SIS classified information in exchange for money. The secrets he shared with British spies included the true identities of Russian intelligence operatives in Europe.
Arrested in 2004, Skripal was branded a traitor, and he received a 13-year prison sentence for his betrayal—a relatively light sentence in Russia, an indication that Skripal had cooperated with the Federal Security Service (FSB) after his arrest. His fate was grim until he was suddenly released in the summer of 2010 and sent to Britain, a free man. This was part of the exchange of 10 Illegals, deep-cover Russian spies who were arrested by the FBI as part of Operation Ghost Stories. Pardoned before he departed Russia, Skripal started a new life in the United Kindgom.
That all came crashing down last Sunday, when Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping area of the provincial city of Salisbury in southern England, 100 miles southwest of London. The pair were whisked off to intensive care, and what agent was used to poison them remains undetermined at this hour. Theories that they were sprayed in the face with a lethal heavy metal remain speculation. Given the Kremlin’s longstanding acumen in weaponizing poisons, some of them obscure and difficult to trace, it may be some time before solid answers appear in this mysterious case.
It all inevitably reminds of the sensational murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in November 2006. An FSB officer who defected to Britain and became an anti-Putin activist, Litvinenko was killed with a dose of polonium-210, a rare and highly radioactive agent, placed in his tea. An extended investigation of the case by British police and the Security Service, popularly called MI5, determined that Litvinenko was murdered by two Russians with connections to the Kremlin and the FSB. It was presumed that authorization for such a brazen assassination, executed in public, had to come from “the top” in Moscow.
The Litvinenko hit was just one of more than a dozen suspicious deaths of Russians living in Britain. That country is a favored destination of wealthy Russians seeking to stash their money somewhere safe and pleasant. Although several of those deaths can be linked to Kremlin operatives, the British government has been relatively timid about making a fuss regarding the murders of Russians on its soil. Although British police and intelligence have pushed for a stronger response by London, that has not been forthcoming. The difficult reality is that enormous Russian investments in British firms and real estate have translated into political influence, and no British government has been eager to rock the boat over a few mysterious murders.
The Skripal hit may change that. The matter has been handed to elite counterterrorism police for investigation, while today the British cabinet convened a top-level COBRA meeting to discuss the case. Although London is officially keeping an open mind, MI5 is reported to believe that the Kremlin stands behind this ugly operation. It’s difficult to imagine who else wanted the old spy dead—and was willing to poison his daughter and risk exposing emergency workers and the public to a lethal poison in such a brazen fashion.
Skripal’s eight years in Britain will now receive scrutiny. He chose to live in the countryside, not London, where Litvinenko was fatally radiated. However, reportsthat several family members have died in recent years—including his wife and son—under less-than-transparent circumstances raise disturbing questions. Why Moscow wanted Skripal dead now needs to be answered. Normally, traitors who have been pardoned and traded in a spy-swap are off-limits; they are left alone, per the rules of the last Cold War.
However, Vladimir Putin has resumed wetwork in a fashion not witnessed in the Kremlin since the days of Joseph Stalin. Putin’s assassinations abroad over the last 15 years have been more aggressive than anything done during the Russian president’s KGB career. Moreover, his views on turncoats are well known: “Traitors always end badly,” he famously explained. In 2010, the year Skripal was swapped to Britain, Putin chillingly stated, “Traitors will kick the bucket. Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers-in-arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces silver they were given, they will choke on them.”
The Kremlin boss regularly uses such rough KGB argot to express himself, but the many dead Russians in Britain over the last dozen years indicates this isn’t just tough talk. Some of Skripal’s betrayal occurred when Putin was the FSB director, so this may be a personal matter for the Chekist-in-chief. Nevertheless, such a brazen public hit just a few weeks before Russia’s presidential election represents a new level of honey-badgering even for Vladimir Putin.
The message being sent is clear: Traitors are never safe, anywhere. Wherever you are hiding, the Kremlin can find you and kill you (and your family). Neither is this problem restricted to Britain. In November 2015, Mikhail Lesin, the founder of RT and a onetime member of Putin’s Kremlin inner circle, died mysteriously in the heart of Washington, D.C. While the official verdict is that a drunk Lesin died of self-inflicted blunt-force trauma, that cover story is considered a bad joke by the FBI and American counterintelligence. Putin likely deemed Lesin a traitor and defector who was about to spill the beans about Kremlin shenanigans to the Americans, so he had him silenced.
Since the Kremlin hasn’t been punished for its apparent murder of Lesin in our nation’s capital, it’s worth asking if it might happen again. Any Russian who’s gotten on Putin’s bad side should not feel safe anywhere these days, not even in the United States. The follow-on question is even more controversial: Would the Kremlin take lethal action against Americans it deems a threat to Russia’s national security?
That’s a much trickier issue. While murdering Russian émigrés is one thing, taking out Westerners in their own countries is another matter altogether. While there may have been a Russian hand in a 2007 attempted murder of an American anti-Putinist outside Washington, D.C., that case remains unresolved. You must go back the better part of a century to find a more-or-less certain Kremlin hand in the killing of an American in the United States.
The unlucky target was Juliet Poyntz, a woman from a privileged background who became a Soviet spy out of ideological enthusiasm. For several years in the 1930s, Poyntz was a valued agent of the Soviet secret police in America, recruiting and running spies for Moscow. However, she disappeared off the streets of New York City in June 1937 and was never seen again. Suspicion quickly fell on the Kremlin, and some insiders believed that Poyntz had grown disenchanted by Stalin’s Great Purge and was deemed a counterintelligence threat: she knew too much, therefore she was kidnapped and killed. Although ironclad proof has never appeared to confirm this, there’s enough circumstantial evidence available that U.S. counterspies have long believed that Poyntz was murdered by her Chekist comrades.
The Poyntz case may not be of merely historical interest in Washington these days. We are in the unprecedented situation where the president and his retinue are under special counsel investigation for their secret ties to the Kremlin. Given Putin’s predilections, Americans who cooperate with Robert Mueller and his prosecutors, sharing information that will harm Team Trump, may be putting themselves at risk of Russian retribution.
Last week, Rick Gates, the Trump campaign official who agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and spill the beans about Russia-related happenings in 2016, cancelled a spring trip to Boston in response to online threats of violence against him and his family. While this was most likely just noxious trolling of the sort that’s depressingly common regarding anything Russian, Gates made the right decision. In Cold War 2.0, the old Chekist rulebook has been thrown out. Anyone who’s deemed a threat by Putin may be at risk of getting lethal attention.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst.