Russian spy poisoning brings world powers closer to day of reckoning

Russian spy poisoning brings world powers closer to day of reckoning
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Counterintelligence — spy catching, as the professionals call it when not testifying before congressional committees — is a game played long. Patience is not just a virtue, but essential tradecraft. As James Olson, the deep-thinking former head of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center, instructed in his Agency-published essay “The Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence,” “the most important” rule is “never give up.” “If there were ever to be a mascot for U.S. counterintelligence,” he suggested with a grim ferocity, “it should be the pit bull.”

The Russian Line KR — shorthand for “kontrazvietka,” or counterintelligence — service has been no less tenacious. And, as the disturbing events last week in Salisbury, England, arguably demonstrate, a lot more vengeful.

The image of the senior citizen former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, slumped on a park bench next to his daughter, Yulia, both of them dazed and incoherent, the 33-year-old woman with a tell-tale white spittle thickened around her lips, has shaken the world.

Skripal had once worked in the shadows, living the perilous, heart-thumping life of the double agent, a GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) man secretly operating for the British. In 2006 the Line KR spycatchers had run him down, and he’d paid a high price: a sentence of 13 years in a Russian prison is, quite literally, a confinement to hell on earth. But after four grueling years, Skripal had been granted a reprieve, liberated from prison in a spy swap. In recognition of his past service, England took him in, allowing the former double agent to live out his years with a Sundays-in-the-park complacency in a quaint English cathedral city.

Still, Skripal must have had his doubts. For those who have operated in the covert world, there is never any escape. The earth is flat, borders irrelevant, and prisons don’t just have high walls or iron bars. Even in retirement, the secret fears of the one-time fieldman, the bitter fruits of an operational existence filled with a lifetime of enemies, still rage. A wary eye must be kept on what’s around the corner, or, for that matter, who might be trailing behind you in the mall,  looking at you with suspiciously circumspect diligence across the crowded pub. Every professional measures out his days with the nagging fear that there will always be the possibility of a final reckoning.

And this is nothing new. The Great Game has always been played for keeps. SMERSH, Stalin’s war-time counterintelligence service, had as it guiding motto a succinct and unwavering promise: “Death to Spies.”  In February, 1941, many intelligence historians believe, its long arm, in fact, had reached across continents to America. General Walter Krivitsky, a defector who had once directed Soviet military intelligence in Western Europe and whose revelations about Stalinist repression had made headlines, was found dead in a Washington, D.C., hotel room. He was lying face up in his bed, his skull blown away, and a blood-soaked .38 caliber pistol by his side. To this day, the debate over the cause of his death lingers: suicide, or the ruthless work of a chistilschik, a mechanic, from the NKVD’s Department 13?

Over the ensuing decades, the name of the Russian intelligence service has often changed, but the guiding philosophy, the institutional retributive mindset, has not.  The assassins of Department V of today’s SVR, as the agency that replaced the KGB in 1991 is known, are still sent out by the Kremlin to take “active measures.” “Death to Spies” remains a wrathful call to battle.

Take, for disconcerting example, the case of Alexander V. Livinenko, a former Russian agent, who was fatally poisoned in London in 2006 with a radioactive element. Or, as Yvette Cooper, a Labour Party lawmaker asserted in a letter to Britain’s home secretary just days ago, the 14 suspicious deaths in England that “have reportedly been identified by United States intelligence sources as potentially connected to the Russian state.” Or, perhaps the fifteenth: the still-unexplained death in London this week of Nikolai Glushkov, an associate of a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Yet, while the Kremlin’s settling scores, its aggressive refusal to let time heal all wounds has been a fundamental part of its covert actions on the world stage for generations, the attack on the Skripals is particularly unsettling.

First, because of the weapon. The poison has been identified as Novichok, a nasty Soviet-era nerve agent first manufactured by Russian scientists in the 1970s. It is not, however, the aggressive lethality of this outlawed chemical weapon that is, I’d suggest, the primary cause for alarm. More distressing is the fact that the weapon is a blatantly smoking gun: Its origin clearly announces that Putin approved the hit, didn’t care that it would be traced back to the SVR, and therefore was a defiant statement to the world that Russia will do whatever it wants.

And, second, such a naked, easily traceable act of aggression on a sovereign state, particularly in the unsettling aftermath of Russia’s well-documented attack on America’s electoral process, will have world-shaking consequences. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, has already issued an ultimatum demanding that the Putin administration respond to charges that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for “the brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.” If there were no satisfactory explanation, the Prime Minister warned she’d conclude it was an “unlawful use of force.”

On Wednesday, May took one step toward retaliation, expelling 23 Russian diplomats from the country.  A cyber attack on Russia, Whitehall sources suggested to the British press, would be another possible official retaliatory action. 

Moscow, however, has not been cowed. “Any threat to take ‘punitive’ measures…” the Russian embassy in the UK growled in a tweet, “will meet with a response. The British side should be aware of that.” And the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson added more fuel to the rapidly building fire: “Who does Britain think it is, issuing ultimatums to a nuclear power?”

And with those chilling words, the events in Salisbury moved the overt world, too, closer to its long dreaded day of reckoning.

Howard Blum is the author of In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies,” which was published last month by HarperCollins, as well as a writer for Vanity Fair.