The Poisoning of Col. Sergei Skripal: Russian Retribution?

Let there be no doubt, the Russian intelligence establishment and leadership have long memories and perhaps even longer arms with which to mete out retribution. The events of March 4 saw Sergei Skripal, a former colonel with the GRU (Russian military intelligence), and his daughter, Yulia, being poisoned with an unidentified nerve agent while walking in downtown Salisbury, England. 

Why now? Could it be a subtle message being sent because Russian President Vladimir Putin is worried some of the 13 indicted by the Department of Justice may be considering cooperating with the United States, or perhaps Russian’s active measures and meddling in the elections of the west are causing more discontent within the Russian rank and file?

Who is Sergei Skripal?

Skripal came to the UK in 2010 as part of a spy swap between Russia and the United States/UK. Russia had just seen a large portion of its intelligence network of illegals disrupted when 10 Russian illegal officers were arrested across the United States. In exchange for Skripal and three others (Igor Sutyagin, a GRU intelligence officer convicted of spying for the United States; Gennady Vasilenko, a retired KGB officer who was arrested in 1988 on charges of espionage for the United States and more recently had been arrested for illegal weapons possession; and Alexander Zaporozhsky, an SVR intelligence officer also convicted for spying for the United States), the 10 Russians were returned to the Russian Federation via a spy swap, which occurred at the airport in Vienna.

Putin Made Skripal a Marked Man in 2010

At the time of Skripal’s release, according to the UK’s Telegraph, Putin is reported to have said that Skripal “will kick the bucket.” It is because of this statement, coupled with the precedent of the poisoning and death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, that the Russians have been identified as behind Litvinenko’s murder.  

Why Skripal?

Skripal had been a source of intelligence for the UK prior to his 2004 arrest and conviction for espionage by the Russian government. During his trial, the prosecutors noted that Skripal had been paid at least $100,000 by the UK’s MI-6 for Russian secrets.

Skripal’s collaboration with MI-6 dated back to the 1990s. Skripal, like Oleg Gordievsky, had provided to MI-6 the names of both Russians who were operating as intelligence officers within the UK as well as the names of sources who were providing classified material to these Russian intelligence officers. Though there were years between Skripal, a GRU officer, and Gordievsky, a KGB officer, their significance as sources for the UK gravely damaged the Russian’s ability to collect UK secrets.

What of Those Who Were Swapped with Skripal?

No doubt, a security detail has been assigned to at least two individuals who have found their way to the UK and who have been convicted for espionage against Russia. 

The first is 79-year-old Gordievsky, who came to the UK following his exfiltration from the USSR in the mid-1980s by UK’s MI-6, which hid him in a vehicle and drove him across the border into Finland and freedom.

The second is Igor Sutyagin, also a military intelligence officer convicted by the Russian courts for espionage in 2004. Sutyagin, however, has told The Sun that he is not concerned.

Why the Heavy Hand?

In the world of espionage, there is no better counterintelligence tool than a recruit from within the adversary’s service. These intelligence assets may have access to the most sensitive of information: the identities of the intelligence service’s own assets. As the United States learned with the cases of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, trusted insiders have the ability to disrupt and neutralize the efforts of their colleagues.

While Putin’s hand has not yet been definitively associated with this attack against Skripal and his daughter, no doubt he is pleased that his prophecy may come true.

It is apparent the UK government is trying to refrain from a premature accusation. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is quoted in the Telegraph: “This is likely to be a lengthy and ongoing process. We need to make sure that the police and the other services have the space to continue that investigation. We need to keep a cool head and make sure that we collect all the evidence we can and we need to make sure that we respond not to rumor but to all the evidence that they collect and then we will need to decide what action to take.” 

While all speculation at this point, if the Russians are found to be culpable, it sends a message to those who may be considering breaking trust that the price may be much more than life in prison if found out.

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May 29, 2018

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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