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Sergei Skripal is not Litvinenko – and this is what that really means

Read the opposite view here

Mary Dejevsky
Wednesday 07 March 2018 17:26 GMT
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CCTV shows Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal days before falling critically ill

Boris Johnson just about observed diplomatic protocol when he addressed MPs about the apparent poisoning of Sergei Skripal. He stopped short of accusing the Russian state directly.

But his inference – a malevolent and unjustified inference for the Foreign Secretary of a country that harps on about the rule of law – was indeed of Russian guilt. And it was clearest in the parallel he invited MPs to draw with the death of Alexander Litvinenko.

Now it may indeed be that Russia – or Russians (something rather different) – are responsible for whatever happened in Salisbury. And it is true that Russians in the UK seem disproportionately accident-prone. But it is premature in the extreme to blame the Russian state, and just as misleading to draw this particular parallel with the Litvinenko case.

Both men may have been Russians branded traitors by their homeland, and both may have been victims of poisoning, but there are important differences.

In Russia, Litvinenko worked against organised crime; he was less a spy in the conventional sense than a criminal intelligence officer. He fled the country after blowing the whistle on his corrupt bosses, and applied for asylum in the UK. His first choice, the US, had turned him down on the apparent grounds that the information he had to offer was not valuable enough.

Unlike Skripal, he started working for MI5/6 only after arriving in the UK, and even then seems to have had difficulty getting on the payroll. His widow, Marina, is still battling to get the intelligence agencies to pay a pension or recognise a duty of care.

It is cruel to say so, but Litvinenko seems almost to have been more use to the UK in death – as a totem of Russia’s general badness – than he was in life.

Sergei Skripal’s history is quite different. As a colonel in Russian military intelligence (the GRU), he was recruited by the British in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, before being tried and imprisoned in Russia for treason.

His luck turned in 2010, when he was included in the spy swap that allowed Anna Chapman and her fellow “sleeper” agents to return from the US to Russia. Skripal was pardoned; he and his wife came to the UK, and their adult children were free to travel to and fro.

Salisbury attack: Timeline of events

The point is that an honour code has governed spy swaps pretty much since they began. Those exchanged become the responsibility of the country they spied for and are left alone by the country they betrayed. If it were otherwise – if the swapped spy became fair game for state retribution of whatever kind – then the whole practice would be negated.

This – even more than the time lag, and the fact that Skripal’s children were able to travel – is why the Russian state, as such, is unlikely to have targeted Skripal. Either that, or – as some are suggesting – Russia now feels that it has so little to lose that it is ripping up the rule book. Personally, I doubt that.

I doubt, too, that the presentations Skripal reportedly gave to the UK military and others about the workings of the GRU – a sort of quid pro quo for his UK pension – were a reason, as some have suggested, why he might have been vulnerable.

This is a common deal for swapped spies; Oleg Kalugin, the highest-level known KGB defector to the US, and Oleg Gordievsky in the UK, have both given talks about their former work for years without fatal consequences.

This does not mean that individuals or groups with their own grievances against Skripal might not have sought to exact revenge. Nor that his continuing ties in Russia, via his daughter and late son, might not have increased any risks. What he did, in betraying agents, is in many books the worst form of treachery. And it is possible to divine other, more exotic, theories.

For the moment, though, I will resist the temptation to delve into my inner Le Carre and return to Litvinenko. As I said, there are crucial differences between the two – differences that should militate against state-sponsored assassination being the favoured explanation for Skripal’s plight.

But there should be doubts, too, about this judgment in the case of Litvinenko. The conclusions of the Litvinenko inquiry, now treated as unimpeachable proof of Russian state culpability, are nowhere near as definitive – or credible – as they have since been presented.

The much-trumpeted (and over-interpreted) conclusion of the judge, Sir Robert Owen, was that “the FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr Patrushev [then head of the FSB] and also by President Putin”.

He said there was “a strong probability” that Andrei Lugovoy poisoned Litvinenko “under the direction of the FSB” and the use of polonium-210 was “at very least a strong indicator of state involvement”. What sort of proof is that?

Plus, the inquiry itself was defective. It took place eight years after Litvinenko’s death – a scandalous delay for a country, let’s say it again, that presents itself as a model of the rule of law.

By then, a consensus had long crystallised on the basis of a massive propaganda campaign (yes, a propaganda campaign), underwritten by Putin’s exiled arch-foe, Boris Berezovsky.

In fact, the inquest exposed Litvinenko’s deathbed indictment of Putin as an artifice composed by others, but this not insignificant detail seems to have been lost.

The biggest defect of all, however, was that possibly vital evidence was not heard in open court, nor was it heard even by the lawyers – only by the judge. This was evidence from the UK intelligence services.

In open court, very few details emerged about Litvinenko’s interactions with MI5/6. One was that, at the time of his death, Litvinenko was receiving a monthly stipend and held regular meetings with his “handler”. Another was that an intelligence officer was present when police interviewed Litvinenko as he lay dying. There was nothing more.

Which brings me to what the Litvinenko and Skripal cases really have in common – and several of the other unexplained deaths of Russian exiles, too: the involvement of UK intelligence.

Now I am not suggesting that “we did it”; nor am I suggesting that it is unusual, or wrong, for MI5/6 to track or “groom” those individuals who might at once be judged vulnerable and useful.

The difficulty – if you want the facts – is that the moment the intelligence services are involved, as they may well be with Russian exiles, the whole subject is covered by a sort of veil, that can both distort and conceal. Practically every conclusion of the Litvinenko inquiry is hedged to some degree. Yet all the hedging has long been removed in the retelling.

Without knowing what British intelligence knew, the rest of us have something less – perhaps a lot less – than the whole truth. Many of the “whats” and the “whys” remain elusive.

It would be consoling to believe that the Litvinenko and Skripal cases will turn out to be different in this respect, too, and that a new openness will prevail. But I can’t say I am holding my breath.

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