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A Powerful Message Delivered With Nerve Toxins

Polonium-laced tea. An ice axe to the head. A ricin-pill fired from an umbrella. Defectors and dissidents have long met their demise uniquely at the hands of Soviet- and Russian-linked security services. Two people were found slumped last week on a bench in Salisbury, United Kingdom. It seems the newest method of choice is a nerve agent. Russia is sending a powerful message to those who seek to stray.

Image Courtesy of United States Air Force, © 2009.

When a man and woman were found last Sunday seriously ill, a bizarre situation turned shocking when the victim’s identity was released. Sergei Skripal was a colonel in Russian military intelligence (GRU). He was allegedly recruited by British intelligence in the 1990s and supplied information on Russian agents in Europe. The Russians arrested Skirpal in 2004 and convicted him of treason for espionage. Though sentenced to 13 years in prison, he was later pardoned and included in the high-profile exchange for the 10 Russian agents arrested in the United States in 2010.

Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition. A responding police officer has also become critically sick. Not officially identified, the poison used is believed to be a nerve toxin, possibly sarin or VX.

Russia has a long history of targeting those believe to have betrayed the country. Leon Trotsky was famously assassinated in Mexico after being hunted by Stalin’s agents. In a strikingly familiar and more recent case, Alexander Litvinenko, a former member of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), was murdered in London after being fed tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. No one has ever been punished for the 2006 assassination, though officials charged a Russian national with the crime and a British inquiry found that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” approved the murder.

The circumstantial evidence pointing to Putin and Russia is strong. The use of a specialized toxin that is both difficult to manufacture and requires training to handle properly points to a state actor. That it was used against a person who was believed to have betrayed Russia’s assets to the West provides a strong motive.

The murky world of Russian politics always makes it difficult to pinpoint the origin of plots and policies. To know whether something was ordered from the top or whether an underling was working on their own to curry favor with the boss is often a guessing game. In this case, the order, either explicitly or implicitly, came from Putin. The use of an exotic toxin on foreign soil to assassinate a well-known figure in public would be too risky a move for any rouge operation. Like the Litvinenko murder, whose primary suspect is back in Russia and comfortably living as a member of parliament, Putin probably approved this as well.

The question now becomes, why try to assassinate Skripal? From an intelligence perspective, he has long since lost the ability to provide British or U.S. agencies with any useful information. It is also an unusual case as Skripal was not a defector in the traditional sense. He was convicted, then pardoned and traded. In the world of intelligence trades, it would be unusual to now come for him. As Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who has long tracked Russian security services said: “it’s against all the rules.”

The first impetus may have come from the intelligence agencies themselves. Mark Galeotti, an academic specializing in Russian security issues, argues that the traditional foreign intelligence services, the GRU and the civilian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), are likely being pressured by the FSB. Since the FSB came into being after the breakup of the Soviet KGB, it has become the most powerful agency in Russia, but it is also more thuggish and not necessarily beholden to norms of intelligence. While the FSB is not likely to risk its own people to clean up the mess of another service, the GRU would certainly feel pressured to make sure its own people stay loyal.

For Putin, a former KGB and FSB officer himself, keeping order would appeal to his general instincts. It also highlights his priorities within the Russian political system. As I wrote recently, Putin is gearing up for his final term as president and needs to ensure his system is stable. His key power base has always been drawn from the security services. There is a simultaneous need to both ensure that the people in those agencies feel they have the leeway to take care of their issues as well as the need to make sure they know there are consequences for stepping out of line.

With these pressures, Skripal was an easy target. His family was reportedly allowed to travel between Russian and the United Kingdom to visit, making him easy to find. A more traditional defector would likely find better protection from a host intelligence service. Now, the message has been sent. There are plenty of ways to kill a defector. Assassinating an enemy in public with a rare poison is designed to make sure that everyone knows there are consequences for following in his footsteps. For Putin’s Russia, a country that in practice has no death penalty, another defector may soon die at the hands of the state. The security services have never shied away from violence as a tool. As long as Russia is run by those agencies, their leaders, and acolytes, we will continue to see violence used to instill fear in those who would dare cross them.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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