March 28, 2018

Russian Intelligence and TRIPLE AGENT Skripal.

Russia's Ambassador to Australia, Grigory Logvinov, has just been put in his place, by 
Australia's stern Foreign Minister, all while on camera. The subject? The disturbing Russian habit of poisoning its defectors in horrible ways, from Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 to Seijei Skripal this month. Even a southeast European intelligence service, inspired by the KGB, indulged in umbrella pellet poisoning, in the 1970s.

So why did the Russians decide to poison double agent Sergei Skripal on March 4, 2018, that is 12 years after reducing his sentence in his "high treason" trial of 2006. How did the Russian's know he was hidden by British intelligence in the small UK city of Salisbury?

From the 1970s Skripal rose in the "GRU" (Russian military intelligence) and by the late 1990s he was a colonel. During this career Skripal was spotted by Spanish intelligence as a potential candidate for "turning" to work for Western intelligence as a double agent. Spanish intelligence handed the management of Skripal over to larger, better funded, UK intelligence (MI6). Posted back to Moscow for medical reasons in the late 1990s Skripal had access to the identities of 100s of Russian case officers and agents ("spies") whose names he revealed to MI6.

In December 2004, Skripal was arrested in Moscow shortly after he returned from a private visit to the UK. Russian intelligence is always going to consider a private visit of an ex-Russian spy to the UK (an opponent of Russia) as suspicious.

Skripal's arrest by the Russians, trial for "high treason" and sentence of only 13 years (imposed in 2006) all appeared oddly inconsistent for someone Russia went to great trouble to murder in 2018.

Skripal was a "double agent" in the sense he originally spied as a GRU officer for Russia. Then he was persuaded to spy for the UK against Russia. 

Arguably Skripal became a TRIPLE AGENT (meaning his loyalty notionally, or did, return to Russian intelligence again) given the extent Skripal cooperated with Russian intelligence investigators in informing them about his experience of UK MI6 personnel and methods. Skripal informed on the UK so much that after his 2006 trial for "high treason" his sentence was reduced from death to 13 years because of  "his co-operation with [Russian intelligence]  investigators." that is he cooperated with Russian intelligence.

Skripal was traded to Britain in a "Spy Swap" in 2010. After the his Swap Skripal continued to provide intelligence and sensitive insights to the UK and other Western intelligence agencies (very likely including US agencies) for a period. Such post swap services to UK and US intelligence no doubt angered Russian intelligence.

But why did Russia try to murder Skripal in 2018?

Partly because the Russians had found Skripal by 2018, so were in a position to decide what to do with him. 

Also be 2018 Russia has become more antagonistic against the UK and US in so many ways (post Crimean and current Ukraine crises), Putin's increasingly pugilistic personality

As with the Russian murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 Putin occasionally and unsubtlely reminds his intelligence agents that if they defect they may die a terrible death. Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in a critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital. They may not live much longer than Litvinenko's 3 weeks.


But how did Russian intelligence find out Skripal was hidden in Salisbury?

Maybe one or several of the following ways:

1.  A lucky spotting by a Russian intelligence employee on a tour of the popular Salisbury Cathedral
2.  An educated Russian guess on which places UK intelligence hides ex-Russian spies.
3.  A mole in the UK Government informing Russian intelligence as to Skripal's whereabouts and
     possible new identity? 
4.  A UK journalist tipoff, OR
5.  Skripal or his daughter Yulia consciously or unconsciously revealed their Salisbury "safe house"
     to Russian intelligence.

Regarding 4. and/or 5. On [March 24, 2018] the BBC said it contacted one of Skripal’s friends from his school days, who said that he was contacted by [Skripal] in 2012. The friend was Vladimir Timoshkov who told the BBC that he had known Skripal since school days. In 2006, when he learned through the media that Skripal had been convicted of espionage, Timoshkov said he managed to contact Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, after finding her on a social media platform. He remained in contact with her, and in 2012 he received a telephone call from Skripal himself. By that time, the double spy was living in England, having relocated there...” 

Put another way, if you use communications these days it is difficult to remain hidden for years from powerful intelligence agencies out to find/get you. Russian intelligence (including Skripal's old employer, GRU, has a signals-cyber intelligence arm (see 3rd paragraph down) that, on a priority basis, can trace and record intelligence related social media emails and then trace followup phone calls from the UK that are routed to Russia.

It is possible Russian intelligence contacted Skripal, had some sort of TRIPLE AGENT intelligence relationship (informing on the UK) with him, but then Russian intelligence overall found it expedient to kill him (Skripal the defector example, Putin's general anti-West stances).  and also Putin's desire to antagonize the West). More specifically Putin wanted to stoke Russia Againt the West patriotism - part of Putin's campaign for the March 18, 2018 Russian Presidential Election.

So plucky Russians need to consider painful consequences before they enrol in GRU, SVR or FSB



Josh said...


Skripal wasn't hard to find, he lived openly. As to why him, he was the *only* living GRU turncoat in the UK. I admit I'm not sure what caused the timing of the action - the Russians seemed to want to go out of their way to make a point to the UK and its allies. Some have suggested events in Syria are the context for this particular assasination, though the Russians generally haven't really needed much motivation to kill people in foreign countries over the last ten years. In fact they probably have killed more people in the last ten years then they ever did during any decade of the cold war.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh

I agree Syria presents no obvious reason.

Skripal living in Salisbury openly does satisfy reason 5. in my article, ie. "5. Skripal or his daughter Yulia consciously or unconsciously revealed their Salisbury "safe house" to Russian intelligence."

Skripal probably realised that if he was vocal (in support of UK intelligence positions) against Russia then Russian agents would find him anyway. so no reason to hide totally.

Why poison on March 4, 2018?

I would say horrible poisoning comes from Putin's/Russia's:

1. regular need to punish "traitorous defectors" as examples of what can happen to other Russian spies contemplating defecting, and

2. More immediately recreating a hostile West was Putin's way of ensuring the his leadership legitimacty in being re-elected to Russia's Presidency on March 24.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
There's more to this attempted assassination than what has been disclosed and available in the public domain. The target Skripal was probably assisting the British and Western intelligence services on a continuous basis. The Russians realised that they had committed a blunder in doing the spy swap. Thus they decided to liquidate Skripal.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete

The target Skripal was probably assisting the British and Western intelligence services on a continuous basis.

The Russians realised that they had committed a blunder in exchanging Skripal in the spy swap.

Thus the Russians decided to liquidate Skripal.


Kumar said...

Hi Pete

I had, in my earlier comment stated that he was assisting Western intelligence; he was briefing intelligence officers in East Europe under directions of the British.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Kumar

Yes, it appears Skripal was not prudent enough to just quietly brief UK and/or US intelligence.

Instead he poked the Russians in the eye by briefing East European intelligence officers on an ongoing basis.

Skripal should have realised:

- Russia still considers much of Eastern Europe its own sphere of influence, and

- Many or most East European intelligence agencies remain penetrated by the Russians, even after the Cold War Warsaw Pact broke up.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
He was probably instructed by the British. He would not have risked this misadventure on his own, considering the fact that he was part of a spy swap. He was lucky not to have ended up like Shadrin (who incidentally had defected to the US and was abducted on a mission in Vienna by the Soviets; he died during the abduction or shortly afterwards).


Peter Coates said...

Hi Kumar [at 23/5/18 1:01 AM]

Yes I agree Skripal "was probably instructed by the British".

Problem was on Skripal's briefing tour of Eastern European (EE) intelligence agencies some EE audiences leaked to the Russians. The most senior EE intelligence bosses would have looked up to KGB direction and leadership (eg. from then middle level Putin [1]) up to 1989-1991 - loyalty in the most formative years of the EE bosses.




Graham Yuill said...

But how did Russian intelligence find out Skripal was hidden in Salisbury? Yulia made constant trips from Moscow to the UK to visit her father. So she was followed by GRU intelligence officers.Simple as that.