Australia's leading Russia security expert explains why the Russians wanted Sergei Skripal dead and why the UK had interest in protecting him.
The UK has vowed action against Russia if it is found to be responsible for the nerve agent attack on a former operative and his daughter this week. While the British investigation delves deep into the poisoning incident, a Russian security expert has shed insight as to why the UK would want to protect Sergei Skripal and the likelihood of Russia actually wanting him dead.
“He was a British spy, he had access to highly sensitive data about Russian operatives who were working abroad. He contributed to compromising some Russian covert operations overseas. That is regarded as high treason,” National Security Associate Professor Alexey Muraviev told SBS News.
UK police have confirmed 21 people in total had received medical treatment following the incident which left Skripal and his daughter Yulia unconscious in a critical but stable condition, following the attack on Sunday in the sleepy south-western English city of Salisbury.
"There's been around 21 people (treated)," said Kier Pritchard, chief constable for Wiltshire Police, noting that included "multiple officers."
One of those officers included Sergeant Nick Bailey, one of first officers to find the pair slumped on a bench outside a shopping centre. He was later hospitalised in intensive care but has since woken up.
He would have known the Russians would have probably wanted to get back at him in one way or another.
Authorities are racing to identify the nerve agent used against 66-year-old Skripal, who came to Britain in a spy swap in 2010. Meanwhile politicians have warned that it shows the hallmarks of an attack by Russia.
National counter-terrorism police have taken over the case, and on Wednesday confirmed that a nerve agent was used, adding they were treating the attack as attempted murder.
The Times reported that police are probing whether Skripal's daughter, who arrived in Britain from Moscow last week, may have inadvertently brought in the nerve agent as a gift.
Why did Russia have reason to want Sergei Skripal?
Sergei Skripal was considered a traitor of Russia, something the security service has zero tolerance for.
In 2004 he was detained by FSB operatives in Russia for treason. The former Russian military intelligence operative (GRU) was found guilty of working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) while still serving Russia’s military in the 1990s and betraying Russian agents to MI6.
Skripal is considered to have deceived Russia in exchange for cash.
He was sentenced to 13 years in prison but served five before he was pardoned and took part in a spy-swap, where four Russian nationals who were working for foreign intelligence were exchanged for ten Russian operatives that had been collected by the US back in 2010. As part of the deal Skripal was sent to live in the UK from 2010 but he was not granted protected status by Britain.
“Despite the fact that he spied for the British between 1995 and 2004, he still obviously possessed sensitive information. He would have been of some value to western intelligence,” Associate Professor Muraviev said.
He felt it was possible Russia may have wanted to neutralise Skripal and keep him from sharing something.
But why now?
Skripal had been in Britain for eight years before the nerve agent attack so if the Russians did want to get him they had plenty of time to do it before now.
There are also a number of high profile defectors who Russia considers to be traitors; they currently live in the US or UK and remain relatively safe so it is unclear why Skripal was targeted now.
“It very much depends what he did. Perhaps he began revealing more sensitive information to the British,” Associate Professor Muraviev said.
“The targeted killing of a spy prepared and organised by the special services requires significant preparation but certainly not years and years.
Associate Professor Muraviev holds the view Skripal knew how Russia felt about him, so it was likely he knew they would want to get back at him.
“If you’re part of the Russian intelligence community you know how Russians feel about traitors and defectors… he would have known the Russians would have probably wanted to get back at him in one way or another.”
Why did the UK help Skripal?
Britain’s housing of a man Russia despised comes down to credibility. Skripal had helped Britain for almost ten years and their secret service had a duty to show they could protect their operatives.
“If the secret service cannot protect their own assets or operatives who work for them they lose credibility. Why would you want to work for someone who you know you cannot trust because they would either dump you, trade you in or won’t be able to offer any protection?” Associate Professor Muraviev offered as a reason for why the UK had a reason to go against Russia on Skripal.
Who is the most likely culprit?
The finger is pointed strongly at Russia after Foreign Secretary Johnson noted the "echoes" with the 2006 poisoning in London of former Russian spy and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko – which Britain also blamed on Russia. Associate Professor Muraviev said if Russia did play a role, it was most likely the GRU (Russian military intelligence), not the FSB (Russia's counterintelligence similar to the FBI) that was responsible.
“Given Skripal worked for GRU because he was a serving officer in the Russian military and he betrayed his fellow comrades from the GRU one can assume if someone would be responsible for that it would be GRU. Part of GRU’s work is to engage in special operations,” he said.
Associate Professor Muraviev was hesitant to link Skripal’s poisoning to the Litvinenko case as he noted they were quite different.
“Using radioactive material as a form of poison, well this is not something the state would actually use because a radioactive material is traceable, it’s not very professional,” he said of the Litvinenko case.
Litvinenko, an ex-FSB officer, died at 43 in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium-210, which he is believed to have drunk in a cup of tea. The two Russians he had the green tea with - Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun - have denied killing him. An inquiry found it was likely then-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and Vladimir Putin approved the death and that it was most probably an assassination. Lugovoi was branded a national hero after Litvinenko's death.
Like Skripal, Litvinenko had been given asylum in Britain after being branded a “traitor” by Russia.
Why it may not be Russia
While there is plenty of finger-pointing at Russia, Associate Professor Muraviev said there were two main reasons why Moscow would want to avoid angering Britain.
“From a political perspective the timing of this assassination (attempt) would be quite bad for the Russians,” he said.
The big one is Russia’s hosting of the World Cup which could be affected if Britain does go ahead with threats to retaliate.
“It happened in the birthplace of football and if the British decide to retaliate by not sending their team and by discouraging fans from going to Russia it would have a really negative impact on Russia hosting the World Cup.”
The second reason is Russia is headed to the polls on March 18 and President Vladimir Putin is considered the frontrunner.
“If the state orders the killing of a former traitor in a foreign country, that’s direct interference in a foreign country’s affairs,” Associate Professor Muraviev said.
Does Russia care about Skripal?
“I think the predominant view is a traitor is a traitor and a traitor deserves to die,” Associate Professor Muraviev said.
The Russian media has not shown a lot of interest in the Skripal story, but most media coverage this week has portrayed him as a traitor and someone who was not a big loss to them.
The majority of references to Skripal in Russia media starts with: ‘Russian traitor was poisoned’,” Associate Professor Muraviev said.
“I don’t think it will have any effect domestically because the Russians don’t really care about what happened to Skripal or even his daughter.”
- Additional reporting AFP