For the Russian state, political assassination is routine. A string of defectors, opposition politicians, and wayward officials have met sudden and sometimes theatrical ends over the past two decades. But if Russia’s intelligence services did poison Sergei Skripal, the former GRU officer and MI6 asset, in Salisbury, this would represent a remarkable and disturbing escalation in Russian aggression. It would confirm that Moscow was, as MI5 put it to parliament last year, “operating to risk thresholds which are nothing like those that the West operates”. Such a shattering of the old rules would require a creative and forceful response.
Skripal would not be the first disloyal Russian spy to have been targeted in Britain. In 2016, an official inquiry into the death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko concluded that he was poisoned using the radioactive isotope polonium 210 by Russian agents, probably on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. But there is a fundamental difference between the status of Litvinenko and Skripal.
The former fled from Russia without the permission of Russian authorities, under the shadow of court proceedings, having publicly accused his former employers of corruption and criminality. His first words upon landing at Heathrow were “I am KGB officer and I’m asking for political asylum”. He and his family were issued false names and new passports. Litvinenko was a defector in the truest sense.
Skripal’s route to the UK was very different. Having been jailed for 13 years for spying for British intelligence, he was eventually pardoned and released as part of the largest spy swap since the Cold War, in which 10 Russian “sleeper” agents were sent back to Russia. Such exchanges are a longstanding ritual of the intelligence world, reflecting the ancient principles of any prisoner exchange. I can certainly think of no precedent in which the beneficiary of such a swap has been targeted for assassination by the country that released him.
Certainly, far higher-profile figures, such as the senior KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who provided vital insights into Soviet thinking during some of the most tense moments of the late Cold War, or KGB general Oleg Kalugin, who became an American citizen and attacks Putin as a war criminal, continue to live out their lives in the UK and United States, cooperating with the intelligence agencies of their host countries and even lecturing to the next generation of spies.
This track record may be why the British authorities do not seem to have considered Skripal at high risk: unlike other defecting compatriots, he appears to have retained his old name and his address is freely available on the electoral roll. It was presumably thought that his negotiated release from Russia, rather than illicit flight, offered some degree of protection. This appears to have been mistaken.
There are many reasons why Skripal might have been targeted, but two hypotheses stand out. One is that any continued work, whether for the British authorities or groups deemed to be hostile to the Kremlin’s interests, might have raised hackles in Moscow. The official report on Litvinenko, for instance, notes that Russia had recently learnt of his work for MI6. Litvinenko was also an “associate” of leading opponents of Putin’s regime and a vocal critic of the president.
A second possible explanation is that this is the proverbial horse’s head, directed at those deemed to be working against Russian interests, with Skripal serving merely as a convenient and suitably vulnerable target. John Sipher, formerly one of the CIA’s senior-most Russia hands, reflected on Skripal’s illness laconically: “a signal to Mr Steele” – the implication being that Russia may be sending a threatening message to former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, who compiled the infamous dossier on President Donald Trump, and the large network of sources who work with Steele’s business. Without further evidence, this must remain a matter of conjecture.
If Skripal was deliberately poisoned, it will take time to establish culpability. But Russia’s assassination spree, within and beyond its borders, and its broader record of political warfare in and against Western democracies, is the context in which this episode is likely to be seen. If Russia did attempt to murder Skripal, then to have done so a week before the country’s presidential elections points to a remarkable insouciance. Unfortunately, the UK and her allies have all failed to demonstrate the necessary resolve in the face of these expanding provocations.
The Obama administration failed to impose a serious cost on Russia for its audacious election interference, while the British authorities appear to have permitted, and then played down, a systematic campaign of over a dozen Russian-linked deaths on British soil over the past decade. While the rejuvenation of Nato over the past several years and the resurgence in European defence spending is a welcome sign, a purely conventional military approach is entirely inappropriate for a shadow war.
Open societies cannot retaliate in kind without transgressing both their laws and their morals, but the economic and political interests of the Kremlin, and the intelligence services intertwined with it, are fair game, and must now be targeted in more creative and aggressive ways.