Espionage and the intelligence services have been back in the news recently in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence, sentenced to 13 years in prison after being exposed and arrested in 2006 as a double agent working for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. Sergei Skripal, 66 years old, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were unconscious after being subjected to a suspicious substance and were hospitalised on 5 March 2018. They were taken into intensive care at Salisbury District Hospital but are recovering. Yulia has left hospital and is staying in a secret location. British police have identified the gas used, a nerve agent ‘Novichok’ of Russian origin.
The Skripals’ attempted assassination has caused the worst diplomatic feud between the West and Russia since the Cold War, at least until the assault on chemical weapons facilities in Syria on Friday 13 April. Russian officials deny any connection to the poisoning of the Skripals. The head of the foreign intelligence service in Russia said the case was invented by British and US intelligence and described its implications by saying ‘It seems the cold war is back’.
Russia and Britain’s clandestine war: a long history of intelligence infiltration
Russia’s Federal Security Services, FSB, is well known for tracking down double agents. The story of espionage is fraught with the targeting of former ‘apostates’ or double agents who worked for foreign intelligence services. Mark Rowley, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Unit, referred to a previous case involving the killing of former Russian intelligence spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. A British investigation report suggested that Russian intelligence operatives killed Litvinenko by poisoning him with a radioactive substance, Polynium-210. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement with Litvinenko’s assassination.
Remy Coffre, an expert in intelligence and author of the book ‘The Masters of Espionage’ commented, “it had happened to hundreds of Soviet agents” amongst them, Colonel Oleg Pankowski. The Soviet Union colonel had submitted valuable information to the west regarding the size and power of the Soviet arsenal during the Cuban missile crisis. He was arrested in 1962, put on trial, and executed. “In autocratic or totalitarian countries, they follow the rule of force: they try to summonse the agents who are considered traitors and execute them,” said Coffre.
There have been double agents working for the benefit of Moscow in the West too. Kim Philby, is the most famous spy of the 20th century. He was a senior official in the British intelligence service, combating the KGB Soviet Committee of State Security. The Soviets recruited him, although he was considered a suitable potential candidate to head the British intelligence service. His espionage for the Soviets was revealed in 1963, and it caused a scandal in Britain and the West. Philby defected to Russia where spent the rest of his life until he died in 1988. There is also the British double agent George Blake, who worked as a British diplomat and intelligence agent in Germany during World War II. However, he was also a communist and a Russian spy. He was eventually arrested by British intelligence in 1961 and sentenced to prison for 42 years but escaped from prison with the help of an old Irish Republican Army friend and defected to Russia.
Intelligence benefits and risks in recruiting double agents
Recruiting double agents is the most dangerous intelligence operation as it is a double-edged sword. While the foreign intelligence services get information and documents from the double agent, the double agent can present their interests, objectives and plans to his or her official employer. Establishing confidence between agents and their country’s intelligence agency requires feeding them with leaked information and documents. The higher the importance of the information classification the more the double agent achieves credibility with his state’s intelligence services. It is well-known that the passing on of secret intelligence is considered a major loss, calculated case by case. Running a double agent takes a lot of effort and is costly. A specialised team within the intelligence services is usually needed to manage the agents’ files and plans because of the agent’s importance. This is unlike normal espionage where the official in charge of the case is the one who manages operations and makes the plans. A number of agents are involved in the management of the double agents. Some are outside the department that manages the case file. The greater the complexity of the double agent’s work the greater the overlap between agencies and countries and, in consequence, the larger the size of the supervising team. This itself can pose an additional risk to maintaining security and secrecy.
Political and intelligence significance of the Skripal assassination attempt
The execution of assassinations usually comes from a political decision made at a fairly senior level in the state security system because of its possible repercussions, which can create a political crisis between states, as has happened between Britain and Russia over the Skripal case. Assassination operations are usually well studied prior to execution in order to estimate the repercussions. The benefits of eliminating a former agent are thoroughly assessed against the impacts they might have on relations between governments. There is no assassination operation without losses, the most important of which is the possibility of making mistakes in the execution of the operation, and revealing the identity of the perpetrators, which could create tensions in diplomatic relations between the operating country and the targeted country.
The timing of the Skripal poisoning coincided with the Russian elections. The case gave a lot of support to Putin and strengthened his political position. These assassination attempts have also been characterised as part of a Russian intelligence effort to destabilise and create political disagreements between western countries, especially Britain, because of possible differences in views of such incidents. The loss of their agents embarrass the intelligence services concerned and there are tremendous difficulties in identifying proof or getting evidence to investigate the agents, the materials used and even the entity behind the assassination.
These operations are a source of concern to western intelligence double agents and can lead to a crisis of confidence. According to BBC reports, The Russian state TV anchor, Kirill Kleimenov, warned traitors could face a similar fate. The press spokesman of the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, said on March 20th, 2018, that Russian security bodies are capable and efficient in assessing the intensity of foreign intelligence work in Russia.
Diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West caused by the Skripal poisoning
Overreaction is another danger as intelligence services might conduct their own operations against Russia to restore confidence. Most important of all,
the assassination attempt on Skripal and his daughter has damaged Russia's relations with Europe and the West, to a degree perhaps not seen since the end of the Cold War. On March 26th,Washington announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle, while Germany announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats. Canada has taken action against seven Russian diplomats of which four are accused of being intelligence officers working in the Russian embassy in Ottawa or the Russian consulate in Montreal, and three others applying for work in the country. Donald Tusk, President of the Council of Europe, said that 14 countries in the European Union will expel Russian diplomats, bringing to about 20 the number of countries that have announced expulsions.
The repercussions of the attempted assassination of Sergei Skipal and his daughter could lead to further expulsions of Russian diplomats in Europe and the West and tighten economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the West on Moscow. More important, however, is the issue of exposing intelligence scandals, revealing new double agents and the risk of renewing the cold war in the context of the Syrian civil war.