Wet Work in Salisbury: Sergei Skripal and the Human Factor of Russian Active Measures


Mark Urban, The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy (Henry Holt, 2018).

On Sunday, March 4, 2018, in the sleepy English city of Salisbury, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, was enjoying lunch in an Italian restaurant with his daughter Yulia. What happened next is now a familiar story. After they finished their meal, the Skripals left the restaurant to feed some ducks in a nearby park. It was at this point that they suddenly became unwell and collapsed. Soon after the Skripals were rushed to Salisbury District Hospital, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey went to their home to search for clues to explain what had happened. Twenty-four hours later, he, too, became unwell. Results from toxicology tests soon revealed that the Skripals had been poisoned by an unknown chemical, subsequently identified as the military-grade nerve agent Novichok A234.

Three weeks later, Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to members of Parliament in the House of Commons and took the unusual step of holding the Russian Federation directly responsible for the incident. “This was not only a crime against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” she said emphatically. “It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom” and “an assault on our fundamental values and the rules based international system that upholds them.” In her government’s assessment, May said this was “part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behavior…[representing]…a new and dangerous phase in Russia’s hostile activity within our continent and beyond.” The United Kingdom acted quickly, expelling 23 Russian spies from their embassy in London, a response greatly validated following the release of findings by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which pointed in the direction of Moscow. By the end of the summer, British authorities had issued a European Arrest Warrant for two Russian nationals they suspected of carrying out the attack. It later transpired that both men were Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) officers who had apparently applied the highly toxic substance to the handle of Sergei Skripal’s front door back in March.

The diplomatic fallout has had serious repercussions not only for Russia and the United Kingdom but also for other countries — including the United States, where there is an ongoing investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. The poisoning in Salisbury, therefore, does much to highlight not only by Moscow’s willingness to target individuals for assassination but also the threat posed by active measures.

Active measures were used throughout the Soviet era as a way to wrong-foot opponents in the West and elsewhere. Typically directed from the Kremlin, they included such actions as meddling in other state’s elections, the spreading of disinformation, including lies and half-truths, as well as the making of threats. Today, the Russian state is arguably using old-school intelligence tradecraft in new ways to serve the overarching objective of protecting its national interests. The targeting of Sergei Skripal could conceivably have been part of a Russian attempt to sow tension between allies and weaken Britain’s role on the world stage. As with most intelligence matters, however, the incident’s outcome was ultimately  defined by the interplay between the individuals caught up in it and the reaction the relevant governments in the broader international arena.

From Russia with Blood

Asked in October 2018 how he felt about the attack on Skripal, Russian President Vladimir Putin was dismissive. “He was simply a spy,” he said. “A traitor to the motherland. There is such a concept — a traitor to the motherland. He was one of those.” Putin’s views could not have been clearer. In Soviet times, Skripal’s offense, becoming a “traitor to the motherland” (izmena rodine), was the most serious crime an individual could commit against the state. Such infringements typically carried with them a death sentence. Ever since the Stalinist secret police agent Ramón Mercader plunged an ice axe into the head of Stalin’s greatest rival, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City, those designated “traitors to the motherland” have been systematically hunted down and murdered wherever they have sought refuge. The most infamous case in recent times, of course, has been the assassination of former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and defector Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with Polonium 210 in 2006.

In The Skripal Files, Mark Urban, the diplomatic and defence editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs program Newsnight, recounts Skripal’s betrayal in considerable detail. A journalist with over 25 years’ expertise of researching, writing, and commentating on intelligence and special operations matters, Urban interviewed Skripal at his home in Salisbury some months before the attempt on the former GRU colonel’s life. It is largely through this encounter that Urban was able to glean so much about his subject’s military and intelligence career.

A former paratrooper, Skripal made the transition into the Russian special forces and onwards to the GRU in the 1970s. It was during a particularly sensitive undercover mission in Madrid in the mid-1990s that Skripal was first recruited by MI6. Urban disguises the identity of Skripal’s handler — as he does with many other key players in the story — though it is clear the two men built up a close personal relationship. Code-named FORTHWITH, Skripal provided invaluable insight into the GRU’s organization, strategies, and tactics for nearly a decade. During the late 1990s, Agent FORTHWITH provided his case officer with useful nuggets of information in a series of meetings in Spain, Portugal, Malta, Italy, and Turkey.

By 2004, one of Skripal’s fellow GRU officers had been arrested and interrogated by the FSB before mysteriously dying following his committal to a psychiatric ward. Not long afterwards, a surveillance operation was also mounted against Skripal. He, too, was promptly detained, imprisoned, and interrogated by Russian authorities. While he never admitted to being a double agent, Skripal was nonetheless convicted of spying for a foreign intelligence service on Aug. 9, 2006.

Urban presents his protagonist as a tough and resourceful former Spetsnaz soldier who used his unique skillset to survive incarceration in one of Russia’s most notorious prisons: IK 5 in the remote forests of Mordovia. After five years of hard labor in this grim penal colony, Skripal was finally released and pardoned as part of a spy swap with the United States in 2010.

Urban suggests that in the years between his subject’s resettlement in exile in the United Kingdom and his attempted assassination, Skripal may have remained active in the spy business, perhaps even acting as a paid consultant to several Western spy agencies. As with Urban’s other fascinating and well-researched books, we find ourselves pulling up a pew next to his interviewees, many of whom provide invaluable off-the-record insights into the secret world of spying. Alongside Skripal’s own perspective, we hear from government officials, retired spooks, emergency services personnel, and Russian émigrés about his near death.

The Human Factor

Throughout his engrossing book, Urban takes us on an expert tour of the psychological consequences for an individual who has betrayed his country. Tough and resourceful as Skripal may have been while imprisoned in Russia, we nevertheless get a sense that during that time, he at least took solace in being amongst likeminded people. During his exile in England, we discover the contradictory forces at work in his character: an undiminished loyalty to his country, which has exiled him. We find a man in search of belonging, who liked nothing more than to venture into nondescript bars and pass the time anonymously.

Intriguingly, Skripal made few friends, the only exception being, apparently, a former British serviceman. His affinity with old soldiers hints at his search for connection with those who might better empathise with his military past. “The corrosive effects on character of the loneliness imposed by the secret life have been noted by several confessed traitors,” observed the great journalist of espionage Chapman Pincher in his influential book Traitors: The Labyrinths of Treason. If this was the case with Skripal, it did not show. Even though the deaths of his wife and son during his exile left him shaken, Urban argues, it would “have been a great mistake to have underestimated his mental or indeed physical toughness.” The Skripal Files offers a genuinely rounded perspective on the human costs and consequences of betraying the Russian state as well as the deadly artistry of Russia’s active measures program.

This is not the first time Russia has carried out active measures in the United Kingdom. Southeast England, in particular, has served for over a decade as the backdrop to suspected targeted killings, known in intelligence and security circles as “wet work” (mokrie dela). In 2008, for example, Oleg Gordievsky — the KGB colonel who defected to the United Kingdom in 1985 — was poisoned at his home near Surrey’s main town, Guildford. In the final years of the Cold War, Gordievsky was the last senior “scalp” taken by British Intelligence. The one-time resident-designate (rezident) and head of the KGB bureau in London, Gordievsky was subsequently smuggled out of Moscow in one of the 20th century’s most audacious extractions of an agent-in-place. It has still not been conclusively established who poisoned him, though he later claimed that it had been a business deal gone sour.

In 2012, Russian businessman and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy dropped dead of a heart attack while out on a jog in Weybridge in Surrey. Less than six months later, Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky was found hanged in his bathroom a few miles away, close to the world-famous Ascot Racecourse. The coroner delivered an open verdict, meaning it could not be established whether Berezovsky committed suicide or was murdered. An investigation by Buzzfeed has since suggested that Berezovksy, Perepilichnyy, and a dozen other Russian émigrés were “assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.”

I recently asked a former agent who had infiltrated one of the 20th century’s most notorious terrorist groups what happened to assets long after their exfiltration. “Guys like me are looked after from ‘cradle to grave’ in that we will always have a contact number for emergencies,” he replied. “That said, the agency will ask for assistance should anything arise that we may be able to help with.” In his view, “good spies never stop practicing the habit of spying in the need for self-preservation.” If this is true, could Urban be right in his inference that Sergei Skripal continued to provide his expertise to those who sought it? “As far as I could establish,” intimates Urban, “Skripal’s work had involved talking to some military audiences…and to a few friendly intelligence services.” This work, Urban suggests, “might have been seen in Moscow as a sort of re-entry into the world of espionage, something that sat ill with his pardon of 2010.”

That Urban did not have the opportunity to follow this up with Skripal after his discharge from hospital leaves a question mark hanging over why the Russian state targeted him for assassination. What we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that the attack gives us a clearer picture of the continuing security challenge that Russia poses on the world stage.

The Resurgence of Active Measures

What are we to conclude from the attempted assassination of the Skripals? If the Kremlin was indeed directly responsible for the attack, it suggests a more coercive implementation of the Russian national security strategy. Publicly, the country is committed to stability on the world stage, including “creating a stable and enduring system of international relations relying on international law and based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, non-interference in states’ internal affairs.” However, nowhere has it been transparent about how exactly it seeks to achieve these objectives. Assuming Russia’s grand strategy seeks to use both military and non-military means at its disposal, then active measures simply offer the Kremlin a robust way to safeguard its national interests.

Moreover, Putin’s leadership style remains intertwined in this strategic process. The careful observer of Russian foreign policy Dmitri Trenin has pointed to Putin’s “total exclusion of any outside influence on Russian domestic politics or policies,” and his attempts at consolidating a “reinvigorated national idea.” In pursing this grand strategic ambition, the Kremlin must have the freedom of action to “protect and promote Russia’s national interests globally and regionally,” Trenin argues.

In this worldview, Russia expert Mark Galeotti says, the formal institutions of the state “have become nothing more than executive agencies where policies are announced and applied, not discussed and decided.” The person with the absolute authority to make such decisions is, of course, Putin. With such a highly personalized political system in place, it is little wonder that the popular media representation of the Russian president as the most senior Chekist (a veteran of the state’s security services) has burned brighter during his long spell in the Kremlin. The question, which Urban grapples with throughout his book, is just how far we can realistically lay the blame for the Salisbury nerve agent attack at Putin’s door. That question, like so many others provoked by reading The Skripal Files, may well remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. What we can certainly see in Urban’s book is just how far active measures rely on the human factor. For as long as states need to gain secrets from the minds of people, this will continue to be their greatest strength and greatest weakness.



Aaron Edwards is a senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and the author of several books, including Strategy in War and Peace and Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire. He is currently writing a new book on British intelligence and the Northern Ireland Troubles. Follow him on Twitter: @DrAaronEdwards.

Image: Peter Curbishley