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The Skripal case: a sense of déjà vu that poses problems for Britain

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Two Russian nationals have been named as suspects by the British government in the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in March 2018. The attack in the English town of Salisbury bears many disturbing echos of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko more than a decade ago and suggests Russian state-led intelligence services do not seem to care whether they are discovered or not.

The suspects in this case – using the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – were almost certainly officers from Russian military intelligence, the GRU, revealed Theresa May, the British prime minister, in a statement to the House of Commons.

The statement came as the independent director of public prosecutions found there was enough evidence to charge the two men for the attempted assassination of the Skripals, use of a Novichok nerve agent and the attempted killing of Nick Bailey – the police officer who helped the Skripals after they had collapsed.

The prime minister said:

The actions of the GRU are a threat to all our allies and to all our citizens … on the basis of what we have learnt in the Salisbury investigation – and what we know about this organisation more broadly – we must now step up our collective efforts, specifically against the GRU.

Mrs May said that this “was not a rogue attack” and that it was “almost certainly approved … at a senior level of the Russian state”. Security minister Ben Wallace went further, saying that Russia’s president was “ultimately responsible … in so far as he is the president of the Russian Federation and it is his government which controls funds and directs the military intelligence, the GRU … I don’t think anyone can ever say that Mr Putin isn’t in control of his state”.

Russian official and media sources unsurprisingly played down the claims. The foreign ministry referred to the statement as “insinuations”, accusing Britain of “manipulating information”. The photographs and details of the suspects “revealed nothing”, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry claimed.

Hallmarks of Litvinenko

The findings were the result of the work of around 250 detectives, who went through over 11,000 hours of CCTV footage and made 11,000 statements. Scientific evidence from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, based at Porton Down, and supplementary secret intelligence from the UK’s security intelligence community support the conclusions that bear the uncanny hallmarks of the 2006 assassination of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in central London – that time using highly radioactive polonium-210.

A public inquiry into the killing, chaired by Sir Robert Owen, concluded it was “probably” ordered by the head of the FSB and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

In both the Litvinenko and Skripal plots, it seemed that Russian intelligence officers thought they had pulled off the perfect killing. In fact, they hadn’t. Litvinenko’s suspected killers, former KGB officers, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, left a trail of evidence across London, including samples of polonium-210, that pointed to Russian state involvement. The killers were “clueless assassins”, journalist Luke Harding writes, who botched a first attempt to kill Litvinenko, followed by a final successful attempt where Litvinenko ingested a dose of polonium “far in excess of known survivability limits”.

The evidence trail

Despite Moscow’s repeated denials, the GRU has left a similar evidence trail for UK investigators. Petrov and Boshirov, believed by police to be cover names, were “more Johnny English than James Bond”, according to Wallace. Both arrived in the UK at London’s Gatwick airport on Friday March 2 on Aeroflot flight SU2588. Both had previously travelled to the UK, investigations revealed. The men travelled to London, staying at the City Stay Hotel, conducting, what police believe to be a reconnaissance of the Salisbury area the next day.

On Sunday 4 March, both returned by train to Salisbury, before allegedly carrying out the attack. CCTV footage places the attackers in the vicinity of the Skripal’s house. Shortly afterwards, it is said the assassins threw away the Novichok container, where it was later picked up by Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley. They then returned to London and travelled to Heathrow where they flew to Moscow on flight SU2585.

Investigators found traces of Novichok at the City Stay Hotel. “We often attribute sophistication and tradecraft to the Russians but this just shows up their thuggery and sheer disregard for the consequences of their actions”, one security insider was reported to have said.

The evidence trail certainly lessens Russia’s plausible deniability – not that the GRU, or elements of the Russian government, will bother that much. Despite their shoddy tradecraft, Petrov and Boshirov were able to successfully complete their mission. Whether incompetent or not, the GRU’s attempted killing of Sergei Skripal underlines the chilling message that Russia’s spies are capable of carrying out “wetwork” (the Russian term “mokroye delo”, meaning “wet affairs” – a euphemism for murder or assassination, alluding to spilling blood) against “traitors” overseas.

Seeking justice

Another conundrum is Britain’s likely response. As with the suspects in the Litvinenko case, Petrov and Boshirov will not face trial in the UK – Russia’s constitution bans extradition of its nationals to foreign states, though the UK has obtained a European arrest warrant. The UK has also raised the case at the UN while sharing information on Russia’s intelligence efforts with allies in the G7.

Mrs May also pointed to deterring Russia in cyberspace, through NATO’s new Cyber Operations Centre. A diplomatic effort to encourage EU states to impose further sanctions on Moscow – even if diplomats face an uphill struggle thanks to the differing attitudes of member states on how to deal with Russia – is also being pursued.

Security sources have suggested that a “cyberwar” will play a role in the UK’s response, though such measures would provoke retaliation from Moscow. Further expulsion of Russian diplomats, a move taken by over 20 Western allies in March, would lead to tit-for-tat removals of Western diplomats.

Certainly, as MI5’s director general Andrew Parker has warned, Russia is involved in “deliberate, targeted, malign activity” against the UK and her allies. The problem of how to deal with this remains a major issue for the UK government. And if the Litvinenko case is anything to go by, it would seem that justice will be very hard to come by.

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