Rus­sia sends a chill­ing mes­sage with its lat­est chem­i­cal at­tack

Putin is out­spo­ken in his crit­i­cism of Rus­sians who spy for for­eign gov­ern­ments and has even made di­rect threats.

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - By Scott Ste­wart

To pedes­tri­ans pass­ing out­side the Malt­ings shop­ping cen­tre 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 ru­mours 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 long­stand­ing 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 well­known 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 pro­grammes 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's Rules

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 longestab­lished 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.

Scott Ste­wart is Vice Pres­i­dent of Tac­ti­cal Anal­y­sis, Strat­for. “Rus­sia Sends a Chill­ing Mes­sage With Its Lat­est Chem­i­cal At­tack” is re­pub­lished un­der con­tent con­fed­er­a­tion be­tween Fi­nan­cial Nige­ria and Strat­for.

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.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin

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