Another in a long history of killings
Published on March 11, 2018
The commotion was in response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer who settled in Britain in 2010. He moved there after serving less than half of his 13-year sentence in a Russian prison, for giving secrets to the British spy agency MI6. Skripal is currently fighting for his life, after being attacked with a nerve agent. His daughter and a police officer are also in a critical condition, while at least 21 other people were reportedly treated for symptoms caused by the nerve agent that was used against Skripal.
Inevitably, the incident brought back memories of the 2006 killing of Alexander Litvinenko, another Russian intelligence officer, who had defected to Britain six years earlier. Litvinenko was poisoned with Polonium 210, a rare and highly radioactive metal that is highly toxic. Following his death, authorities had to bury his car, because he had spent several hours in it following his poisoning with the nuclear substance. In response to Litvinenko’s killing, the British government expelled three Russian diplomats and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally authorizing Litvinenko’s murder. The Kremlin denied the charges and expelled three British diplomats in return.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Russia must inevitably be seen as the obvious culprit of these attacks. As in the case of Litvinenko, Russia has numerous reasons to want Skripal dead. Additionally, Russian intelligence agencies have a long history of killing defectors, with incidents dating back to at least 1921. That was the year that the GPU, a forerunner of the KGB, launched TRUST, a deception operation designed to lure anti-communist defectors back into the Soviet Union. Among its victims was Sidney Reilly, a Ukrainian-born British intelligence officer, who is said to have influenced Ian Fleming’s creation of James Bond. By many accounts, Reilly, known as “the Ace of Spies”, had tried to kill Vladimir Lenin in 1918. The Soviets never forgot that, and brutally executed him in a forest outside Moscow in November of 1925, after subjecting him to many months of harsh interrogation.
In the interwar period, the Soviet government continued to hunt down defectors, especially intelligence officers. Dozens were targeted throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. One notable case was that of Ignace Reiss, one of the so-called ‘great illegals’, a uniquely talented and resourceful generation of Soviet spies who literally invented modern espionage. Reiss, who used at least three dozen names throughout his long career in espionage, defected in 1937 in protest against Joseph Stalin’s purges. The Soviets tracked him down and killed him in Lausanne in September of that year. His close friend Walter Krivitsky, another member of the ‘great illegals’, was murdered by Soviet intelligence in Washington, DC, 1941, three years after he had defected from Russia and only months after the assassination of another Soviet exile, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City.
At the end of World War II, Soviet-sponsored assassination operations were rampant in Manchuria and West Germany, two locations where thousands of pro-German Soviet defectors had found refuge. Kidnappings and assassinations became daily occurrences. Notable victims included two leading Ukrainian nationalists, Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera. Bandera was poisoned with cyanide and died in Munich in 1959, two years after Rebet had been assassinated in the same city. Rebet was attacked by a KGB assassin using an ingeniously designed atomizer gun, which emitted liquid poison in vapor form. His killer, KGB officer Bohdan Stashynsky, later defected to West Germany and testified that dozens of assassinations on foreign soil had been personally authorized by Alexander Shelepin, head of the KGB, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Another KGB defector, Nikolai Khokhlov, testified in the late 1950s about Soviet experimentation with poisons, including arsenic, thallium, atropine and warfarin, for purposes of assassinations. The central idea, said Khokhlov, was to make it seem like the victims die of heart attacks, thus deterring coroners from ordering autopsies. The Soviets later tried to kill Khokhlov with thallium, but failed, as Khokhlov miraculously survived after being treated at a Frankfurt hospital.
When confronted with this history, Russian officials argue that these were different times, when the Soviet Union used different tactics to advance its interests worldwide. However, comprehensive analysis shows that the predominant theme that characterizes the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligence operations is remarkable continuity, not disruption. Throughout the political changes of the post-Soviet era, Russia’s intelligence services have consistently viewed themselves as guardians of Russia’s superpower past, and continue to act in the defense of what they see as Russia’s wounded pride. This is especially applicable to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorate and Skripal’s former employer. The GRU has for decades prided itself on the unwavering loyalty of its personnel. Its leadership saw Skripal’s betrayal as an unforgivable act worthy of death. Skripal was eventually pardoned by the then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and exchanged for Russian spies caught in America. But that pardon was delivered by a civilian leader in the political domain. In the intelligence domain, which in Russia is not subordinate to the politicians, Skripal’s betrayal still stands, and remains in need of punishment.
It must be stressed that, in the post-Soviet era, the cases of Litvinenko and Skripal are hardly unique, nor should the brutality of the murders cause surprise. Last week, British parliamentarian Yvette Cooper wrote to the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, urging her to order the review of more than a dozen recent cases of Russians who died under mysterious circumstances in Britain. They include the cases of Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch and critic of Vladimir Putin, who was found hanged in his Berkshire mansion in 2013, and Alexander Perepilichnyy, a witness in a corruption investigation, who died after suddenly collapsing in the street in Surrey. The initial cause his death was heart attack. But a subsequent postmortem examination found in his stomach traces of a poison extracted from a rare tropical plant that does not grow in Britain.
Late last week, Litvinenko’s mournful widow, Marina, told CNN that Russian defectors come to Britain seeking safety. But “it looks like [the] British government can’t provide it”, she added. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Amber Rudd addressed the House of Commons saying that the attack against Skripal was “attempted murder in the most cruel and public way”, and promising that London would “act without hesitation as the facts become clearer”. Given Britain’s indecisive response to Litvinenko’s assassination 12 years ago, Ms. Rudd’s threats sound distinctly hollow. London may choose to respond politically, with a series of diplomatic expulsions, financial sanctions, or boycotts of sports events. Some will undoubtedly argue, however, that these are intelligence issues that must, at some point, be answered in the intelligence domain. That may be so. London may indeed be preparing to embark on a covert-action war against the Russian intelligence services. If it does, it will require all the weapons available in its arsenal, against an adversary that has a long, bloody tradition in the dark arts of espionage.