An attempt in Salisbury
On an otherwise normal Wednesday afternoon in Salisbury someone released a nerve agent to kill a former Russian spy and his daughter. Sergei (66) and Yulia Skripal (33) were found unconscious next to a bench outside The Maltings supermarket. As the afternoon turned to evening the severity of the event became clear. The identificaiton of a nerve-gas attack sent the security services into a frenzy. Agents in hazmat suits scoured the area and Britain's counter-intelligence units began putting together a picture of why such a 'brazen and reckless' attack had taken place in Salisbury.
Much of the coverage has arrived at the conclusion that the attack was planned and executed by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR)
. Working in tandem with the Federal Security Service (FSB) the SVR conducts Moscow's counter-intelligence and assassination program. It of course brings to mind the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Another former KGB operative (and outspoken critic of Russia's oligarchs), Litvinenko died a swift death
from radiation poisoning after polonium-210 was slipped into his tea.
The nerve-agent used in this particular attack is rarely found outside military arsenals; it is designed to inflict maximum damage. The compounds in it disable the enzymes
that serve as the "off switch" for various bodily functions. So with everything "on" the victim vomits, froths at the mouth, convulses, sweats and defecates. If left untreated, muscles eventually stop responding; then comes paralysis and asphyxiation. Our readers may recall footage of Syrian children exhibiting these very same symptoms in the aftermath of the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun last year.
On the question of who perpetrated the attack, there are various theories. Was the incident gang-related? Or perhaps revenge exacted by a betrayed former colleague? Fingers have been pointed at 'Londongrad'
, the amorphous, shadowy underworld of Russian expats living in the city. The large and wealthy Russian minority which has strong links back to the old country has been glorified in documentaries, and is also now the subject of a hit drama, 'McMafia'. One thing seems certain - the answer to the mystery lies in Sergei's past.
Born in 1951, Sergei's impressive rise through military intelligence (where he achieved the rank of colonel) and the foreign ministry came to a violent halt when he was arrested in 2004. The authorities had cottoned onto the fact that he had spent years passing information to Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI-6. Sergei had disclosed the names of several Russian undercover assets in Europe in exchange for $100,000 deposited into a Spanish bank account.
Following his arrest he was sentenced to 13 years in a hard labour camp. But his time there was cut short by a spy-swap in 2010. On the tarmac of a Viennese airport Sergei and three others were exchanged for 10 spies who had been caught in the United States. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin issued a public and unambiguous threat to those who had been released; the traitors would get their comeuppance.
Last year Sergei's wife and son
died under mysterious circumstances. Their deaths are now being reappraised by investigating authorities as possible assassinations.
To add yet another layer of mystery to the affair, the British press has also reported that Sergei had struck up a relationship with the ex-spook Christopher Steele. Steele, readers may recall, is the ex-MI6 agent who compiled the infamous dossier
containing allegations about the Kremlin having compromising information on Trump.
'Turning' a former or current intelligence official of another country is hard work. That it requires considerable effort and resources by Britain's security apparatus goes some of the way to explaining London's forceful response to this incident. But the other issue at stake is that this was a messy operation
. The targets aren't dead (yet) and 21 bystanders had to be treated for injuries related to the nerve agent. The first-responder - DS Nick Bailey - was also hospitalised but is now stable. 'Collateral damage' may well be part of the moral calculus of such attacks (whether in the skies over Pakistan, the streets of Colombia or a Salisbury park bench), but this operation does appear to have been botched.
Despite the fact a chemical weapon has been used on British soil against an individual cooperating with British intelligence, the promise of a 'robust' response
from the UK rings hollow. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd insists that those responsible will be caught, but history suggests that the culprits are likely to have departed the country by now.
One of the most interesting take-aways from this saga is Sergei's recent employment status; it appears he was contracting as a freelance spy
. That idea doesn't sit easily with our Hollywood-endorsed notion of spies (think James Bond uttering the maxim, "for king and country"). It reveals a world in which multinational corporations have invaded the domain of the nation-state. The truth is that today the security apparatuses of most countries are augmented by the workforces of private contractors. Corporate employees like Sergei Skripal (or Edward Snowden, for that matter) engage in espionage and counterespionage in much the same way that mercenaries like Blackwater and the Wagner group fight the ground wars.
In a world where security is just another service provided by competing multinationals with international workforces it is even more difficult to apportion blame.