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

Russian embassy LondonAs 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 said on 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, and intelligence 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 | Date: 15 March 2018 | Permalink

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

  1. Juan F. says:

    If there weren’t people hurt. I would think that this history is part of a marketing campaign for the next and last season of “The Americans” TV series

  2. tomsecurity says:

    ‘a Russian-produced military-grade nerve agent’ – Actually a Soviet-era nerve agent that was never produced in Russia, it was produced in Uzbekistan, and according to the OPCW all stockpiles were destroyed nearly 20 years ago.

    I suggest you incorporate these facts into your future coverage of this story, because here in the UK there’s a huge amount of scepticism about the government’s rush to judgement before the police investigation has concluded.

  3. Harry Eustace III says:

    Wondering if there is a connection between Steele and Skripal…

    Steele’s assignment was funded by $168,000, which is peanuts especially since he hadn’t been in Russian since retiring in 2008. Was Steele running Skripal who, in turn, was running people in Russia?

    Just wondering….

  4. Sean Callahan says:

    In your excellent article, you make the following claim:
    ”History never repeats itself”

    Joseph, as a regular reader of your blog, this is probably the first time that I have disagreed with you. I would argue that History first repeats itself as farce, and then as tragedy. There is a book written in the early 80s ( I believe) that will argue the same.

    Building walls that don’t work as intended would be my first example. If I need to come up with many more I am happy to do so if you so require.

  5. Sean Callahan says:

    I have one simple question for you, do you speak Russian?

  6. Sean Callahan says:

    Tosecurity, I hactually have two simple questions for you. Do you know the translation of Novichok? One hint is that is that it is not an Uzbek word. I look forward to your responses.

  7. C. Jones says:

    Sean Callahan: Yes, history does indeed repeat itself, just with different actors. On a micro-scale we tend to judge others by their past history as a frame work – good or bad – because of relatively high “probability” that “history”, i.e., behavior left unchecked, would be repeat down-line. Same applies to countries flavoured with ideology.

  8. Pete says:

    So the expulsion of 23 Russian intelligence officers under diplomatic cover has been followed by Russia’s expulsion of 23 British diplomats .

    Their expulsion becomes effective through removing diplomatic status through persona non grata(ing). Called “PNGing” in the trade All quite predictable.

    But extended negotiations and “spy trades” may occur if Putin’s FSB detect and imprison alleged Western “deep cover” or “illegal” agents – mentioned in the Intelnew’s article. The innocent can get hurt.

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