Whitehall sources had been claiming that the suspected poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was being treated as a state-sponsored Russian assassination attempt. Now British prime minister, Theresa May, has said officially that it is “highly likely” to have been ordered by Moscow after the nerve agent used was found to have been of a military grade developed by Russia.
Along with his daughter Yulia and a police officer who attended the scene in Salisbury where they were found, Skripal was taken to hospital critically ill after being exposed to a nerve agent. A former Colonel in Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye, or GRU), Skripal was recruited by Britain’s foreign intelligence agency the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, now MI6) in the 1990s. In 2006, he was arrested and prosecuted in Russia for “high treason”. According to the Russian security service, the FSB, Skripal “caused serious damage to the national defence and security” before he was exchanged in a spy swap in 2010.
Despite a pardon from the Kremlin, Skripal was said to be living in fear of Russian assassination after moving to the UK – a fear felt by many others. Former KGB officer Viktor Makarov who, like Skripal, spied for Britain, feared being shot “in the back of the head”.
In 2010, Russian President Vladimir Putin chillingly warned that “traitors will kick the bucket, believe me. Those other folks betrayed their friends, their brother in arms”. “Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them”.
The Russian Embassy in London was quick to dismiss the claim about Putin’s warning following the attack on Skripal and suggested the Skripal case was “demonising” the country. “This is just some sort of insufferable absurdity,” said a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, called for a robust response if claims of Russian interference were proved, including the withdrawal of UK officials from the upcoming World Cup.
Whatever the truth, the case has got people talking once again about Russia’s attitude to anyone who threatens its interests. But it also reminds us of the long and dark history of state-sponsored assassination attempts on foreign soil. Russia is far from the only suspect on this front.
Getting away with it – or not
Targeted killings have often been used to undermine foreign countries and send important psychological messages to opponents and “traitors”. Russia’s use of “wetwork” (from the Russian mokroye delo, literally “wet affairs”, referring to the spilling of blood) has long been a part of Russian intelligence history. What began with the Cheka, the first Soviet security agency, continued to the NKVD, SMERSH (drawn from the phrase smert shpionam, meaning “death to spies”), the KGB, and its successors in the modern day FSB and SVR (the Russian foreign intelligence service).
In February 2017, the half-brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was murdered with the nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur airport by two women, one of them dressed in a T-shirt bearing the word “LOL” (they both claim to have been led to believe they were taking part in a prank TV show).
Then there’s Israel, whose national intelligence agency, Mossad, has long been suspected of assassinations. Israel’s spies were accused of killing at least five top Iranian nuclear scientists between 2007 and 2011, some using specially designed charges stuck onto car doors by attackers riding motorbikes, in an attempt to derail Iran’s nuclear programme.
The 2010 killing of Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room thought to be by a Mossad team using false European and Australian identities provoked a wake of criticism, leading to the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat in London. The Irish and Australian governments took similar action. Israel denied it was behind the killing.
The examples show that, even if successful, countries engaging in assassination face blowback if things go wrong. Targeted killing is no quick fix.
Russia’s spies have long been active in targeting former intelligence officers, prominent defectors and political opponents. In November 2006, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in central London using highly radioactive polonium-210. A public inquiry into the killing concluded it was “probably” ordered by the head of the FSB and Putin himself.
Litvinenko’s killing was just one of several confirmed or suspected to have been carried out by the Russian state on British soil. A Buzzfeed News investigation detailed 14 such suspected “hits”. Certainly, we need to be careful about attributing suspicious murders or attempted murders to the Russian state, but Russia’s spies have a long history of murder.
The NKVD’s Directorate of Special Tasks, formed in December 1936, and the KGB’s executive action branch, the Thirteenth Department, were active for decades. The defection of KGB officer Nikolai Evgenievich Khokhlov in 1954 gave Western intelligence details of the exotic assassination devices developed by Soviet technicians, including guns disguised as cigarette cases. Ukrainian nationalists Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera were assassinated using poisons fired by silenced weapons, with details of the plots only emerging after the assassin, Bohdan Stashynsky, defected to the West in 1961.
Like Mossad’s suspected attacks on nuclear scientists, Litvinenko’s murder and the horrific attacks on other Russian dissidents are designed with one purpose: to instil fear in dissidents, opposition leaders and (like Skripal) former spies – and indeed, anyone potentially inspired by their behaviour. The message is clear: “Desist, or else.”
The UK security services will take time to fully piece together the details of Skripal’s poisoning, but the case has highlighted the use of assassination and “covert action” by foreign intelligence services. Whether Russia is involved in this latest incident or not, it should surprise no one that countries regularly use killing as a way to intimidate and pursue foreign policy goals. What remains to be seen in this case is how the British government will respond.