A Cold War-style espionage row reached its dramatic climax yesterday when a retired Russian secret service officer was sentenced to 13 years in a prison camp after apparently confessing to being a double agent for MI6.
In a secret Moscow trial that could have come straight from the pages of a John Le Carré novel, retired colonel Sergei Skripal, now 55, was reported to have admitted selling the names, addresses and codenames of "several dozen" Russian agents to MI6 over a period of 10 years.
The agents he exposed worked "under cover" in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and Moscow admitted that his treachery had seriously compromised Russia's intelligence network. A veil of secrecy surrounds much of the case due to its sensitivity, but it is known that Skripal was formally either an agent for the FSB (the successor organisation to the KGB) or, more likely, for the Defence Ministry's main intelligence department, known as GRU.
His motives appear to have been financial; he was reportedly paid more than £54,000 to betray his country, a large sum in Russia where the average monthly wage is £160. According to the prosecution, Skripal was recruited by MI6 in the mid-Nineties during an extended foreign assignment in an unnamed country, when on military business. They alleged that he continued to spy for Britain after he returned to Russia, and even after retiring in 1999, when he started tapping former colleagues.
The retired colonel was reportedly paid in cash each time he met his MI6 handler, and also received monthly payments in a Spanish bank account.
The information he sold was detailed and included the dates and locations of agents' clandestine meetings with their Kremlin handlers. MI6 used his tip-offs to place the agents under surveillance to learn as much as it could about their activities, before sending them back to Moscow.
Given that it takes years to train and place field agents, Skripal's betrayal was a serious blow to the FSB. "Through his actions the spy caused serious damage to state security and to Russia's ability to defend itself," the state security agency said in a statement.
Skripal was arrested in December 2004, though the fact that he was caught was made public only yesterday, the day he was sentenced. As well as a 13-year spell in prison, the military court ordered that he be stripped of his rank and medals.
Prosecutors had originally called for a 15-year sentence, but the court reduced his term in recognition of the fact that he apparently confessed, repented, and cooperated with the investigation, and is in poor health.
A British embassy spokesman declined to comment.
This is the second major spy row involving Britain and Russia this year. In January, four British diplomats based in Moscow were accused of spying and of using a sophisticated data transmitter disguised as a rock to send information. The diplomats were named on state television, and embarrassing footage of them apparently retrieving data from the "rock" was broadcast.
The FSB said at least one Russian national was arrested in connection with that scandal and is awaiting trial, accused of spying for MI6. The idea that spying ended with the Cold War appears to be a myth. Last year, Whitehall sources said there were at least 32 Russian diplomats trying to obtain military and technical secrets in Britain.Reuse content