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Espionage |Explainer

Who is Sergei Skripal, target of the nerve agent attack in Britain?

  1. MI6 codename was 'Forthwith'
  2. Neighbors thought he had 'worked in government'
  3. Betrayed by Spanish double agent who is now in jail

Warlike threats on one side, and apparently puzzled denials on the other: as British Prime Minister Theresa May awaits the Russian ambassador’s explanation for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, one question has not been fully answered: why Sergei Skripal?

Skripal has been living in the United Kingdom since 2010. He arrived there after a spy swap, which included sometime glamour model Anna Kuschenko Chapman.

What had he done before?

Skripal, born Sergei Viktorovich Skripal in Kiev, Ukraine, in June 1951, (The Times), studied military engineering, and became a member of an elite paratrooper regiment. He rose to the rank of colonel in the GRU (Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye), Russia’s military intelligence service. On his way up he was a boxing champion in the army.

In the mid-1990s he was posted to Spain. There it’s alleged he was recruited as an espionage source (Sunday Times) by an agent of British foreign intelligence service MI6 who called himself “Luis.” Skripal was given a time-share apartment in Malaga as part of his pay-off for passing classified Russian information to Luis, according to the Sunday Times. The Times also says that it was a Spanish spy, Roberto Flórez García, who told the Russian embassy in Madrid the identity of the double agent on the Costa del Sol. Flórez later stood trial in Spain and was jailed in 2010 (AP).

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The information Skripal provided to the British included details of GRU operations and the names and identities of active agents and the other military intelligence officers inside and outside Russia, according to The Times. It reported that his MI6 code-name was “Forthwith.” 

Skripal apparently left the military intelligence world to pursue business activities in 2003 (The Independent). But his earlier activities as a double-agent were detected, and officers of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, arrested him in 2004. He was tried on charges of high treason, and sentenced to 13 years hard labor.

However, after only four years of the sentence Skripal was pardoned and included in a spy swap after the exposure of 10 Russian “sleeper” agents. He came to Britain, where he resettled in a modest family home in Salisbury, a small and historic cathedral city in the county of Wiltshire, about two hours’ drive south-west of London. The ancient monument of Stonehenge is 10 miles away.

Skripal never changed his name, and apparently made no attempt to hide his identity. He gave locals the impression (The Guardian) that he was a retired Russian government official. He was joined by his wife, and his daughter Yulia visited frequently from Moscow. In 2012 his wife Liudmila died of cancer at 60, and his son Alexander, aged 43, died in 2017. Alexander Skripal died in St. Petersburg, but his body was flown to the UK for burial beside his mother. Both these graves are now being examined (New York Times) as part of the investigation into the poisonings of Yulia and Sergei.

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Why him?

In previous similar incidents – including the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 – it appeared that the attack was part of an ongoing domestic Russian campaign. The victims were seen as threats in some way to the dominant class in Moscow. But it is hard to line up Skripal with this. One suspicion reported by analysts and media is that he was still meeting MI6 agents. “While it wasn’t spying, there was an ongoing use,” one former Russian security official was quoted as saying in the Financial Times.

Russia will hold a presidential election on Sunday March 18. Asked by a BBC reporter about the Skripal case, Vladimir Putin, as reported by Russian news agency TASS, said the British should clarify the situation first, “and after that we will discuss this with you.”

Do you have any facts you could add to our developing profile of Sergei Skripal and his poisoning?

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Consulting editor with WikiTribune. Previous career mostly in print media, news and feature writer, commissioning editor, copy editor, trainer and teacher. 25+ years in leading European/British media, BBC, FT, Sunday Times, Irish Times, including five years on latter's foreign desk. Launch team, Open Government Partnership, Dublin 2013. Teach digital media ethics and journalism practice.

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