Theory explored that the Russian state targeted ‘traitorous’ spy to demonstrate risks of links with foreign intelligence agencies.
The biggest question about Sergei Skripal’s mysterious poisoning is the timing. Skripal had spent several years in a Russian jail after being convicted of espionage and had presumably been thoroughly debriefed by his former spy bosses. If the Russian security services had wanted him to have an “accident” during those years it would have been very easy to organise.
Sunday’s assassination attempt in Salisbury, if that is what it was, therefore appears to have a demonstrative nature. Suggestions that this could be some kind of vote-winning ploy, coming two weeks before presidential elections Vladimir Putin is certain to win, seem unconvincing. Many Russians are patriotic and have bought into the Kremlin’s aggressive new foreign policy, but it is unlikely that the assassination of a former spy of whom few had heard would do much to whip up popular passions.
More likely, the move is a deterrent, aimed at reminding other Russian operatives of the potential risks of working with foreign intelligence agencies. Every year Russia’s top security officials speak of active attempts by the CIA and other western agencies to recruit Russians. Part of this is propaganda for domestic consumption, but there is no doubt that western spy agencies are active in Russia.
Last January, two of Russia’s top cybersecurity officials were arrested and accused of aiding the CIA, in a case some have linked to US election hacking claims. The British, too, have been active in Russia, most memorably revealed by the “spy rock” scandal, in which a fake rock was used to pass messages back to British intelligence.
While there are fewer ideological reasons than during the Soviet period for Russian spies to become traitors, western agencies can provide financial incentives. Russian prosecutors suggested, during Skripal’s court case, that he was recruited with cash – according to Russian media. Many agents, working in structures in which their superiors are demonstratively corrupt, might be tempted into colluding with friendly foreigners offering cash for secrets.
As such, the demonstrative killing of a traitor could be a warning to junior officers not to follow the same path. Russian officials have often made it clear that traitors will meet a sticky end one way or another. Public threats were made against the officer in the SVR foreign intelligence service who betrayed the Russian sleeper agents swapped for Skripal and others, back in 2010.
“We know who he is and where he is,” a high-ranking Kremlin source told Kommersant newspaper at the time. “You can have no doubt – a Mercader has already been sent after him.” Ramón Mercader was the assassin tasked by the KBG to kill Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. It is unusual, however, to target spies after they have been swapped. One possible reason is that Skripal was being punished for a continuing relationship with British intelligence, or the suspicion of one.
“My presumption is that if the Russians were behind this, and it does look plausible, then it is because they assumed Skripal was still working for British or other western intelligence and not simply retired,” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia watcher and security analyst. “That is likely what tipped the balance with Litvinenko.”
Many hits on Russians abroad arise from financial warfare and do not necessarily come from the Kremlin – such as the shooting of the banker German Gorbuntsov in London, 2012, and the assassination of the Russian MP Denis Voronenkov in Kiev last year.
Yet the attack on Skripal looks more likely to belong to the category of hits organised and approved by the Russian state. And given the long political fallout of the Alexander Litvinenko murder, it is unlikely that intelligence agencies would risk such a gambit without a signoff at the highest level.