Friday, March 16, 2018

Analysis: Decoding Britain’s response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal

 Russian embassy London

As expected, Moscow snubbed the British government’s demand for information into how a Russian-produced military-grade nerve agent ended up being used in the streets of Salisbury, England. As British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Sergei Skripal continued to fight for his life in a hospital in southern England. His daughter, Yulia, was also comatose, having been poisoned with the same Cold-War-era nerve agent as her father. This blog has followed the case of Sergei Skripal since 2010, when he arrived with his family in the United Kingdom after he was released from a Russian prison, having served the majority of a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain.
Just hours after the attack on the Skripals, British defense and intelligence experts concluded that it had been authorized by the Kremlin. On Wednesday, Prime Minister May laid out a series of measures that the British government will be taking in response to what London claims was a Russian-sponsored criminal assault on British soil. Some of the measures announced by May, such as asking the home secretary whether additional counter-espionage measures are needed to combat hostile activities by foreign agents in the UK, are speculative. The British prime minister also said that the state would develop new proposals for legislative powers to “harden our defenses against all forms of hostile state activity”. But she did not specify what these proposals will be, and it may be months —even years— before such measures are implemented.
The primary direct measure taken by Britain in response to the attack against Skripal centers on the immediate expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain. They have reportedly been given a week to leave the country, along with their families. When they do so, they will become part of the largest expulsion of foreign diplomats from British soil since 1985, when London expelled 31 Soviet diplomats in response to revelations of espionage against Britain made by Soviet intelligence defector Oleg Gordievsky. Although impressive in size, the latest expulsions are dwarfed by the dramatic expulsion in 1971 of no fewer than 105 Soviet diplomats from Britain, following yet another defection of a Soviet intelligence officer, who remained anonymous.
It is important to note, however, that in 1971 there were more than 500 Soviet diplomats stationed in Britain. Today there are fewer than 60. This means that nearly 40 percent of the Russian diplomatic presence in the UK will expelled from the country by next week. What is more, the 23 diplomats selected for expulsion are, according to Mrs. May, “undeclared intelligence officers”. In other words, according to the British government, they are essentially masquerading as diplomats, when in fact they are intelligence officers, whose job is to facilitate espionage on British soil. It appears that these 23 so-called intelligence officers make up almost the entirety of Russia’s “official-cover” network on British soil. This means that the UK Foreign Office has decided to expel from Britain nearly every Russian diplomat that it believes is an intelligence officer.
It is indeed difficult to underestimate the size of this diplomatic expulsion in the post-Cold War context. It suffices to recall that, in 2006, London expelled just four Russian undeclared intelligence officers in response to the murder of another defector to Britain, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. But how damaging will the latest expulsions be to the Russian intelligence presence in the British Isles? Theresa May saidon Wednesday that the expulsions “will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. And if they [the Russians] seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so”. Her statement is questionable on many levels.
There is no doubt that Russian intelligence operations on British soil will suffer a setback as a result of the impending expulsions. But the extent of that setback will depend on the size of Russia’s non-official-cover intelligence presence in Britain. Non-official-cover operatives include all Russian intelligence officers who are embedded abroad under deep-cover, without links to Russian embassies, or even to Russia itself. In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation caught 10 such Russian agents in the United States, most of whom were masquerading as citizens of third countries, including Canada, Britain and Peru. Two more were captured in Germany in 2011, and were found to be using Austrian passports. No-one knows how many more such deep-cover agents the Russians have working in the West. Some believe that undeclared intelligence officers, of the type that Britain will be expelling in response to the attack on Skripal, are merely decoys, who preoccupy Western counterintelligence services while the real espionage is conducted by deep-cover spies, known as “illegals”. It is indeed almost certain that the attack on the Skripals was not perpetrated by staff at the Russian embassy, who are closely monitored by Britain’s Security Service (MI5), but by illegals. If that theory is true, then the latest wave of expulsions announced by London will make minimal difference to Russian intelligence operations on British soil.
Additionally, one needs to consider the inevitable response from Moscow to the announced expulsions. On Tuesday, the Russian embassy in the UK tweeted that “any threat to take ‘punitive’ measures against Russia will meet [sic] with a response. The British side should be aware of that”. The Kremlin will have inevitably compiled its own lists of British undeclared intelligence officers masquerading as diplomats in Moscow, and will undoubtedly be reviewing them in the wake yesterday’s events. In all probability, that will lead to a tit-for-tat expulsion of undeclared intelligence officers between Britain and Russia. If that were to happen, it is difficult to know which side’s intelligence operations will suffer most.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Mrs. May’s speech came at the end, when she mentioned that her government would “deploy a range of tools from across the full breadth of our national security apparatus in order to counter the threats of hostile state activity”. Most of these measures, she added, “cannot be shared publicly, for reasons of national security”. This statement means that Britain’s response to Skripal’s poisoning will be multi-level, and will include diplomatic, political, economic, andintelligence components. It is the latter that Mrs. May did not disclose during her speech on Wednesday, and which could potentially be the most harmful to Russian interests. One theory is that the British prime minister may have hinted at the revival of a host of intelligence operations against Russia, which the British government abandoned at the end of the Cold War. But if that is the case, it will be years before these long-abandoned programs will begin to bear fruit. Another theory is that Britain’s intelligence establishment may be preparing for a sustained low-level confrontation against Russia. But in that case, why take out the element of surprise —so central in the realm of intelligence— by announcing publicly that an espionage war is now underway?
Undoubtedly, the level of intensity generated by the Skripal case lacks the high tension of the Cold War. At the same time, the political drama currently unfolding in London is substantial, and is giving the millennial generation in both East and West a small taste of what the Cold War was like. History never repeats itself. However, future historians may point to the Litvinenko and Skripal cases as transitional moments that helped shape a new era of confrontation between Russia and the West.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis |

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Russian spy may have been poisoned by nerve agent smeared on car’s door handle

Sergei Skripal

The nerve agent that poisoned a Russian double spy in England last week may have been smeared on his car’s door handle, according to sources. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, are in critical condition after being poisoned on March 4 by unknown assailants in the English town of Salisbury. Skripal, a Russian former military intelligence officer, has been living there since 2010, when he was released from a Russian prison after serving half of a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain. The British government said on Monday that it believes Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent, thought to have been built in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Britain’s counterterrorism experts continue to compile evidence on the case. Moscow denies any involvement.
On Tuesday, Neil Basu, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Service, which houses Britain’s counterterrorism force, said that the investigation into the Skripals’ poisoning was complex and painstaking. Speaking to reporters in London, Basu said that hundreds of witnesses had been contacted and nearly 400 items had been collected from various crime scenes that related to the March 4 attack on the two Russians. He added that investigators were still looking into the whereabouts of the Skripals during a 40-minute period when they were driving in Mr. Skripal’s car. According to British newspaper The Daily Mail, Mr. Skripal’s dark red BMW is now “at the center of the investigation” into his poisoning. There are claims, said the paper, that the former spy and his daughter came in physical contact with the nerve agent by touching the door handles of the BMW as they entered the car on the evening of March 4. Some investigators appear to believe that the nerve agent may have been smeared on the car’s door handles.
The Metropolitan Police are now appealing for witnesses who may have seen the Skripals driving around downtown Salisbury in the red BMW, or arriving at the car park of Sainsbury’s, part of a British nationwide supermarket chain, on the early afternoon of March 4. Basu said that it was not known whether the pair met anyone during those 40 minutes. The police spokesman said that the Skripals were still fighting for their lives at a local hospital. He added that the inquiry into their poisoning would “take many weeks”.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

UK blames Russia, says it will not invoke NATO Article 5 in attack on ex-spy

Theresa May

The British prime minister said on Monday that it was “highly likely” the nerve agent used to attack a Russian defector in England last week was developed by Russia. But sources in London told the BBC that the British government would not invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. Theresa May was referring to an assassination attempt carried out on March 4 by unknown assailants against former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal. The 66-year-old former spy and his daughter were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury. It was later determined that they were attacked with a nerve agent.
Speaking in the British House of Commons, Mrs. May said that “world-leading experts” in chemical weapons had concluded Mr. Skripal had been attacked with a “military-grade nerve agent”. It was, she added, part of a group of nerve agents developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, known collectively as novichok (newcomers). The existence of these nerve agents took place in secret, but was later revealed by Russian government agents who defected to the West. British officials also disclosed yesterday that the British Foreign Office summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to seek an explanation about the attack. Additionally, London has called on Moscow to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of its novichok nerve agent program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an intergovernmental agency based in the Netherlands, which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.
Meanwhile NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday that the alliance viewed the use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil as “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and that it was in contact with British officials about the matter. But British government officials told the BBC that London had no intention of invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires all member-states to rally to the defense of a member under attack. The only time that Article 5 has been invoked by a member was by the United States, in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. In Washington, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that the United States was “monitoring the incident closely” and took it “very seriously”. Mrs. Sanders described the attack on Mr. Skripal as “reckless, indiscriminative and irresponsible”, and extended the American government’s “support […] to our closest ally”, the United Kingdom. But she refused to respond to questions about whether the Russian government was behind the attack, saying that British experts were “still working through […] some of the details” of the case.
On Monday, during an official visit to the southern region of Krasnodar, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by a BBC reporter to comment on the attack on Skripal. He respondedto the British reporter saying that the government in London would first have to “sort this out for yourselves first, then come talk to us”. He then walked away. Commenting from Moscow on Mrs. May’s allegations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that her statement in the British Parliament had been “a circus show”.

British intelligence to tighten security protection for Russian defectors


The British secret services have begun tightening the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain, a week after the attempted murder of former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal in southern England. The 66-year-old double spy and his daughter, Yulia, were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury on March 4. It was later determined that they had been attacked with a nerve agent. Russian officials have vehemently denied that the Kremlin had any involvement with the brazen attempt to kill Skripal. But, according to The Times, the British intelligence community has concluded that Skripal and his daughter were attacked on Moscow’s orders —most likely the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, where Skripal worked until his arrest for spying for Britain in 2004.
Citing an unnamed source from Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, The Times said that initial assessments of Skripal’s poisoning were damning for Britain’s intelligence community. They raised questions, said the source, about the ability of Britain’s two primary spy agencies, the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), to provide security to their assets. The source told The Times that it was “impossible to reduce […] to zero” the risk of serious physical harm against individuals like Skripal, and before him Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was poisoned to death in London in 2006. But the attack on Skripal is being viewed as an intelligence failure, said the source, and part of the response to it involves a comprehensive review of risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter include attacks with chemical and radiological weapons, said The Times.
The report came as another British-based Russian defector, Boris Karpichkovtold The Daily Mirror newspaper that the Kremlin has tried to poison him three times since 2006. Karpichkov, 59, joined the KGB in 1984, but became a defector-in-place for Latvian intelligence in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He claims to have also spied on Russia for French and American intelligence. In 1998, carrying two suitcases filled with top-secret Russian government documents, and using forged passports, he arrived in Britain with his family. In 2006, while living in the UK, Karpichkov says he was warned by MI5 to leave the country because his life may be in danger. He temporarily relocated to New Zealand, where he says he was attacked with an unidentified nerve agent. He told The Mirror that he lost nearly half his weight during the following weeks, but survived due to good medical care. However, he was attacked again, he said, four months later, while still living in New Zealand.
Karpichkov told The Mirror he had been warned that his name was on a shortlist of eight individuals that the Kremlin wanted to kill. He also claimed that he was told by a source to watch out for people carrying electronic cigarettes, because Russian intelligence had developed nerve-agent weapons that were disguised as e-cigarette devices.

Analysis: All evidence points to professionals behind Skripal poisoning

Skripal Salisbury

Most state-sponsored assassinations tend to be covert operations, which means that the sponsoring party cannot be conclusively identified, even if it is suspected. Because of their covert nature, assassinations tend to be extremely complex intelligence-led operations, which are designed to provide plausible deniability to their sponsors. Consequently, the planning and implementation of these operations usually involves a large number of people, each with a narrow set of unique skills. But —and herein lies an interesting contradiction— their execution is invariably simple, both in style and method. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal last Sunday in England fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert operation in almost every way.
Some have expressed surprise that Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2004 for selling Moscow’s secrets to British spies, would have been targeted by the Russian state. Before being allowed to resettle in the British countryside in 2010, Skripal was officially pardoned by the Kremlin. He was then released from prison along with four other Russian double agents, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover spies who had been caught in the United States earlier that year. According to this argument, “a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement” in the past. Thus killing a pardoned spy who has been swapped with some of your own violates the tacit rules of espionage, which exist even between bitter rivals like Russia and the United States.
This assumption, however, is baseless. There are no rules in espionage, and swapped spies are no safer than defectors, especially if they are judged to have caused significant damage to their employers. It is also generally assumed that pardoned spies who are allowed to resettle abroad will fade into retirement, not continue to work for their foreign handlers, as was the case with Skripal, who continued to provide his services to British intelligence as a consultant while living in the idyllic surroundings of Wiltshire. Like the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, Skripal entrusted his personal safety to the British state. But in a country that today hosts nearly half a million Russians of all backgrounds and political persuasions, such a decision is exceedingly risky.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service announced that Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been “targeted specifically” by a nerve agent. The official announcement stopped short of specifying the nerve agent used, but experts point to sarin gas or VX. Both substances are highly toxic and compatible with the clinical symptoms reportedly displayed by the Skripals when they were found in a catatonic state by an ambulance crew and police officers last Sunday. At least one responder, reportedly a police officer, appears to have also been affected by the nerve agent. All three patients are reported to be in a coma. They are lucky to have survived at all, given that nerve agents inhaled through the respiratory system work by debilitating the body’s respiratory muscles, effectively causing the infected organism to die from suffocation.
In the past 24 hours, at least one British newspaper stated that the two Russians were “poisoned by a very rare nerve agent, which only a few laboratories in the world could have produced”. That is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that few laboratories in the world would dareto produce sarin or VX, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction. But no advanced mastering of chemistry or highly specialist laboratories are needed to manufacture these agents. Indeed, those with knowledge of military history will know that they were produced in massive quantities prior to and during World War I. Additionally —unlike polonium, which was used to kill Litvinenko in 2006— nerve gas could be produced in situ and would not need to be imported from abroad. It is, in other words, a simple weapon that can be dispensed using a simple method, with little risk to the assailant(s). It fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert killing: carefully planned and designed, yet simply executed, thus ensuring a high probability of success.
By Wednesday, the British security services were reportedly using “hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers working around the clock” to find “a network of highly-trained assassins” who are “either present or past state-sponsored actors”. Such actors were almost certainly behind the targeted attack on the Skripals. They must have dispensed the lethal agent in liquid, aerosol or a gas form, either by coming into direct physical contact with their victims, or by using a timed device. Regardless, the method used would have been designed to give the assailants the necessary time to escape unharmed. Still, there are per capita more CCTV cameras in Britain than in any other country in the world, which gives police investigators hope that they may be able to detect the movements of the attackers. It is highly unlikely that the latter remain on British soil. But if they are, and are identified or caught, it is almost certain that they will be found to have direct links with a foreign government.

British intelligence already sees Kremlin behind ex-spy’s poisoning, say sources

Sergei Skripal

Britain’s counterintelligence service is nearing the conclusion that a foreign government, most likely Russia, tried to kill a Russian double spy and his daughter, who are now fighting for their lives in a British hospital. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, are said to remain in critical condition, after falling violently ill on Sunday afternoon while walking in downtown Salisbury, a picturesque cathedral city in south-central England. Skripal arrived in England in 2010 as part of a large-scale spy-swap between the United States, Britain and Russia. He was among four Russian citizens that Moscow released from prison and allowed to resettle in the West, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover intelligence officers, who had been arrested earlier that year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.
Since Skripal’s poisoning made headlines on Monday morning, the basic details of his story have been reported extensively. He is believed to have served in Soviet and Russian military intelligence for several decades, rising to the rank of colonel. But in 2004 he was arrested and eventually convicted by Russian authorities for spying on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He had served nearly 7 years of a 13-year sentence in 2010, when he was pardoned by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and allowed to resettle in England with his immediate family. He did so in Salisbury, where he was found in a near-fatal state last Sunday, slumped on a street bench next to his equally catatonic daughter. Inevitably, the story brought back memories of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, who defected to Britain but was poisoned to death with a radioactive substance in 2006. His murder prompted London to expel four Russian diplomats from Britain, a move that was countered by Moscow, which also expelled four British diplomats from the country.
Despite the close parallels between Litvinenko and Skripal, the British government has not publicly blamed Russia for Sunday’s attempted killing. But according to The Times newspaper, officials at the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s counterintelligence agency, are already pointing to Russia as the culprit of the attempt on Skripal’s life. The London-based paper cited anonymous sources in Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, who said that MI5 experts were already briefing government officials about the details of the assassination attempt by Russian government agents.
Actions taken by the British government in the past 24 hours also point to Whitehall viewing the attempt on Skripal’s life as an operation sponsored by a state, most likely by Russia. The investigation of the incident is now being led by the counterterrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Additionally, samples of the victims’ tissue, as well as blood and other bodily fluids, have been sent for examination by toxicologists at the Ministry of Defence’s top-secret Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down. It also emerged last night that British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called an emergency meeting of the British government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR, also known as Cobra) group, which she chairs. The group consists of cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and the leadership of the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence services, who meet to respond to developing emergencies of a national scale.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Discovery of cocaine in Russian diplomatic luggage leads to numerous arrests

FSB drug arrests

A Russian former diplomatic employee and an Argentine police officer are among six people arrested following the discovery of nearly 1000 pounds of cocaine inside the Russian diplomatic compound in Buenos Aires. The arrests took place last Thursday and were announced in Argentina by the country’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. She told reporters that the arrests came after a 14-month investigation in Argentina, Russia and Germany. She added that the investigation unveiled “one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations” in Argentina’s history.
The 14-month probe dates to December of 2016, when Victor Koronelli, Russia’s ambassador to Argentina, and thee members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, discreetly approached Argentinian authorities. They informed the Argentinians that they had discovered 16 pieces of luggage filled with drugs inside an annex of the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. Argentinian authorities were given permission to secretly enter the embassy grounds and inspect the suitcases. They confirmed that they contained more than 850 pounds (390 kilos) of cocaine, with a street value of more than $60 million. The suitcases were intended for transfer to Russia via a diplomatic flight. Cargo transferred on diplomatic flights cannot be searched by international customs officials due to the privilege of diplomatic immunity.
According to Bullrich, diplomatic counter-narcotics officers secretly transferred the bags to a separate location, where they replaced the cocaine with flour and fitted the suitcases with GPS tracking devices, before returning them to the Russian embassy annex. The luggage was eventually transferred to Russia via airplane in December 2017, a year after it was bugged by the Argentinians. Several Argentinian customs officers traveled to Russia to monitor the transfer of the shipment, in coordination with Russian authorities. The latter arrested two Russian citizens who tried to collect the suitcases. Another Russian citizen, and former staff member of the Russian embassy in Argentina, Alia Abyanov, was arrested in Moscow. Officials said Abyanov helped plan the transfer of the suitcases to Russia.
Two Argentines with dual Russian citizenship were also arrested in Buenos Aires. One of them has been named as Iván Blizniouk, a police officer, who is believed to have mediated between the drug smugglers and corrupt Argentine customs officers. A seventh suspect, identified only as “Señor K.” by the Argentine authorities, remains at large. He is believed to be living in Germany and is currently wanted by Interpol pursuant to an international warrant that has been issued for his arrest.