Spy Sto­ry: Litt­le Fish With a Big Ene­my


MOSCOW — Ser­gei V. Skri­pal was a litt­le fish.

This is how Bri­tish of­fi­ci­als now de­scri­be Mr. Skri­pal, a Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer they re­crui­ted as a spy in the mid-1990s. When the Rus­si­ans caught Mr. Skri­pal, they saw him that way, too, gran­ting him a re­du­ced sen­tence. So did the Ame­ri­cans: The in­tel­li­gence chief who or­ches­tra­ted his re­lease to the West in 2010 had ne­ver heard of him when he was in­clu­ded in a spy swap with Moscow.

But Mr. Skri­pal was si­gni­fi­cant in the eyes of one man — Vla­di­mir V. Pu­tin, an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer of the sa­me age and trai­ning.

The two men had de­di­ca­ted their li­ves to an in­tel­li­gence war bet­ween the So­viet Uni­on and the West. When that war was sus­pen­ded, both strugg­led to ad­apt.

One ro­se, and one fell. Whi­le Mr. Skri­pal was try­ing to re­invent him­s­elf, Mr. Pu­tin and his al­lies, for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, we­re gathe­ring to­ge­ther the strands of the old So­viet sys­tem. Gai­ning po­wer, Mr. Pu­tin be­gan ta­king re­ven­ge, re­ser­ving spe­cial hat­red for tho­se who had be­tray­ed the in­tel­li­gence tri­be when it was most vul­nerable.

Six months ago, Mr. Skri­pal was found be­si­de his daugh­ter, Yu­lia, slum­ped on a bench in an Eng­lish ci­ty, hal­lu­ci­na­ting and foa­ming at the mouth. His poi­so­n­ing led to a Cold War- style con­fron­ta­ti­on bet­ween Rus­sia and the West, with both si­des ex­pel­ling di­plo­mats and wrang­ling over who tried to kill him and why.

On Sep­tem­ber 5, Bri­tish of­fi­ci­als of­fe­red spe­ci­fics, ac­cu­sing Rus­sia of sen­ding two hit men to sme­ar Mr. Skri­pal’s front door hand­le with a ner­ve agent, an ac­cu­sa­ti­on vi­go­rous­ly de­nied by Moscow. Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence chiefs claim they ha­ve iden­ti­fied the men as mem­bers of the sa­me Rus­si­an mi­li­ta­ry in­tel­li­gence unit, the G.R.U., or Main In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­to­ra­te, whe­re Mr. Skri­pal on­ce worked.

It is un­cle­ar if Mr. Pu­tin play­ed a

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