A still image taken from an undated video shows Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, being detained by secret service officers in an unknown location.

Nerve agent attack would be new chapter in Kremlin playbook

  1. No one has confirmed it's Moscow, but fingers pointed
  2. Attack would appear to breach 'rules of the game'
  3. 'They’re taking gangster methods from Russia and using them in Britain'
  4. 'Message to defectors: they're in the crosshairs'

After a former Russian double agent and his daughter were targeted by a sophisticated nerve agent attack in the center of a small English town, British politicians including the foreign and defence ministers were quick to draw comparisons with previous incidents blamed on the Kremlin.

While it’s not confirmed Moscow was behind the attempted assassination, a range of experienced observers told WikiTribune the attack fits with the modus operandi of Russian state and affiliates in organized crime but would also suggest a new level of boldness.

The Russia experts explained why suspicion over the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal fell immediately on President Vladimir Putin’s government, and why the Kremlin might carry out a crime that could so easily be laid at its door. None of the analysts we spoke to thought there was much doubt the attack was carried out by an agent of or with the approval of the Russian state.

Bill Browder and Magnitsky

Bill Browder, the London-based hedge fund manager who considers himself Putin’s biggest enemy, summed up his suspicions: “You have a person deemed to be a traitor to Russia, you have a country whose government authorized extraterritorial killings, you have a president who has said publicly that traitors will be liquidated, you have the use of illegal and totally banned chemical weapons that are only made in government labs.”

A police car is parked next to crime scene tape, as a tent covers a park bench on which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal, and a woman were found unconscious after they had been exposed to an unknown substance, in Salisbury, Britain, March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
A police car is parked next to crime scene tape, as a tent covers a park bench on which former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, and his daughter were found unconscious after they had been exposed to an unknown substance. REUTERS/Toby Melville

In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko took 23 days to die after he was contaminated with the rare radioactive material polonium 210. A decade later, a judge-led inquiry found that the former FSB agent had probably been targeted by the Russian government. Litvinenko had been assisting the British foreign intelligence service MI6. Litvinenko was poisoned in a London hotel with green tea laced with polonium.

Alexander Perepilichnyy collapsed and died while jogging near his English country home in 2012. An inquest hasn’t concluded and reports that a rare poison was in his system have not been confirmed. What is known is that Perepilichnyy passed documents confirming a $230 million Kremlin-linked fraud to the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was employed by Browder, and who died in prison in Russia.

Gangster methods from Russia

Russia’s track record goes beyond these deaths, David Satter, a long-term Moscow foreign correspondent who became the first journalist expelled from Russia under Putin, told WikiTribune.

“They’re taking gangster methods that have long been used in Russia and using them in Britain,” said Satter, explaining that many more political assassinations have been carried out on Russian soil.

John MacLeod, a senior analyst at geopolitical consulting firm Oxford Analytica, said the attack exhibited the “trademark” sophistication of the Russian state.

In 2017, after a two-year investigation, BuzzFeed News reported on the details of the deaths of 14 people in the UK with links to Russian businessmen and government figures. The deaths had been identified as linked by U.S. intelligence, though this information was ignored by UK police, according to BuzzFeed. British politicians this week woke to the BuzzFeed report and called for an inquiry.

“Putin is scared of getting in trouble for what he does, but if there are no consequences there’s no trouble for him,” said Browder, who bemoaned Britain’s “complete failure to create any type of consequence for murders in the UK.”

‘Such an extraordinary thing requires extraordinary approval’  – John MacLeod

Edward Lucas, a former editor at The Economist, now at international think tank the Center for European Policy Analysis, said Russia’s track record made him wary of jumping to conclusions.

“Killing anybody is bad but there are ‘rules to the game’ if you like,” said Lucas. “Killing defectors was certainly done in the cold war, but Skripal wasn’t a defector. Litvinenko was helping MI6 a lot, Periplichnyy was a major whistleblower, so in a way [those assassinations were] within the rules.” An attack on Skripal and his daughter appears more reckless, and so far unexplained, said Lucas.

Lucas suggested that if the attack on Skripal could be considered a new level of aggression this was in line with a bolder approach from Russia.

A still image taken from an undated video shows Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, being detained by secret service officers in an unknown location. RTR/via Reuters TV
A still image taken from an undated video shows Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, being detained by secret service officers in an unknown location. RTR/via Reuters TV

In many ways, this attack “typifies the Kremlin’s approach to ‘next generation’ warfare, where Russia challenges the West and defies it to respond, which it does not,” said Lucas, citing Russian interference in Western elections as a comparable example.

An attack on Skripal by the Kremlin would constitute a particularly pointed example of this type of challenge, said Lucas. “[UK Prime Minister] Theresa May made a speech in November saying ‘we know what you’re up to,’ but this shows perhaps we don’t.”

Litvinenko killed with radioactive polonium

Similarly, MacLeod said the attack on Skripal had significant differences to that on Litvinenko. “The Litvinenko killing was pretty audacious [at the time],” said MacLeod. “This comes in the context of more audacious and unpredictable actions [by Putin],” he said, citing Moscow’s unexpected intervention in Syria as an example.

Russia’s track record for this type of attack and behavior on the international stage have drawn the finger of blame inexorably toward the Kremlin. MacLeod told WikiTribune that with the presidential election later this month, it would be dangerous for a security official to approve the attack without the go ahead from a senior government official.

“Such an extraordinary thing to do would require extraordinary approval,” said MacLeod. Why the Kremlin would approve such a step, was a more baffling question.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, Russia March 1, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly, including the State Duma parliamentarians, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and other high-ranking officials, in Moscow, Russia March 1, 2018. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

Putin sends a message loud and clear

Arch Puddington, of U.S. think tank Freedom House, told WikiTribune that the Skripal incident must be seen in the context of Russia’s looming election, where Putin was widely anticipated to win a fourth presidential term.

“In Putin’s campaign speech [on March 1] he bragged about very sinister and new highly sophisticated weapons Russia is developing or is supposed to have developed,” said Puddington. “The part of his speech devoted to international affairs was very menacing … this is all of a part.”

More widely, said Puddington, the Kremlin is speaking to the community of Russian former intelligence agents and other officials now living in the West. “It’s a message to them that they are in the crosshairs of Russian intelligence and can be eliminated if deemed to be cooperating with the UK or U.S., or the West generally.”

‘The message was we’re gonna liquidate you and your entire family’ – Bill Browder.

Putin’s government has grown increasingly corrupt and lawless, making it feel more vulnerable and keen to demonstrate its defiance of the West, said Satter, whose latest book The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep accuses Putin of complicity in mass murder.

“The psychology that mass propaganda has helped to engender in Russia is one in which this type of assertiveness actually plays very well,” he said.

Browder, who considers himself to be constantly in the crosshairs of the Russian state, has successfully campaigned for the creation of the targeted U.S. Magnitsky sanctions, which hammer the financial flows of Putin’s allies. He told WikiTribune the attack on Skripal is indicative of how Putin holds power.

“This is not a statement to us,” Browder said. “Putin’s main audience is the officials that work for him – security and law enforcement. He used to be able to pay for their loyalty, but now there’s not the money flowing around so the only way he can keep their loyalty is terror and fear.”

“The message was we’re gonna liquidate you and your entire family,” said Browder.

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