Revenge of the spies. How to become a target for the CIA, MI6, FSB and Mossad all at once.
My business involves assisting foreign companies with trade and investment in Russia. So I have a more than passing interest in Russia’s international relations. At times, because my office is in the provincial city of Saratov rather than in Moscow, I have perspectives on Russia that do not seem available to journalists and embassy staff based in the major cities.
I’m writing about the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia because the British media seems to have closed far too quickly on a single line of enquiry that is very convenient for the government. In particular, there has been no discussion of Brexit despite important initiatives from the European Union. I’m also surprised that two potential connections to Saratov that have arisen.
Those who have not tracked the recent rise of anti-Putinism in the British media might want to read my Blog on this before reading about the Skripal case. The recent media storm against Putin seems to have blinded the UK media to alternative explanations other than the government's.
The attempted Skripal assassination
Both Russia and the UK have denied or avoided the question of possessing stocks of Novichoks or indeed of ever having made it. This is reasonable given the secret nature of chemical and biological warfare. It is unbelievable that any lab interested in chemical weapons has not made Novichoks. Every country with the capability needs to design suits and respirators to defend against exposure. Every country needs to characterise the poisonous effects of the chemical. Every country needs to explore the possibility of making an antidote. Manufacture would be in small quantities for lab tests. Of course, large stocks capable of military use would be destroyed by any responsible country under the OPCW rules.
Mirzayanov, who did not work in the lab itself, says that only the most sophisticated countries could make Novichoks. This list would be the US, the UK, France and Russia. Actually, in 2016, Iran declared that it had made five members of the Novichoks family. If Iran can make Novichoks there are probably at least 20-30 other countries with the capability. Iran gave the spectral data to analyse the agents to the OPCW. The OPCW is therefore very well-placed to analyze the British samples. Novichoks are apparently not difficult to make in principle. Two relatively innocuous agrochemical precursors can be carried by an individual. Creating deadly Novichok is apparently just an issue of mixing together. How this produces a powder at first pass is beyond me. However, before being put into weapon it must be made and tested. The big problem is to avoid killing yourself after mixing the precursors. The huge investments at government run CBW sites Include enormous levels of protection against accidental exposure of the public. A sufficiently desperate mafia chemist might decide to work with a fume cupboard, a Hazmat suit and a sealed room with a shower outside dispensing detergent based shampoo. After all, household detergent could neutralise traces left behind, particularly in the case of a fast decaying agent. Deep protection would be trusted to luck.
There are two claims about potential Soviet sources. Mirzayanov says that the material was made in Nukus, a facility in Uzbekistan. The precursors came from a pesticide factory in Kazakhstan. US inspectors pulled down the Uzbekistan facility in 1999, somewhat late, considering that the Soviet Union fell in 1991. If the material had any shelf life, it could have been a leftover from Nukus. Another option for Russian production is Shikhany near Saratov, where my office is based. This is a more serious option as a source. Saratov was a closed city, precisely because of the presence of this facility and the nearby Engels Air Force Base for long-range bombers.
A chemist from Saratov, Vladimir Uglev appears to have been the bench chemist responsible for developing the basic compounds. He believes that there are a dozen people, at least, still alive in Russia who could make it. He also thinks that German and British chemists would need very little information to develop similar products. He siad that there were no antidotes at the time the nerve agents were first synthesised.
Turning the basic compounds into binary components was the work of Professor Leonid Rink's team, also in Shikhany. In 1995, in return for payment, Rink made a batch of chemical used to murder a Russian banker and his secretary. He served a short sentence as an accessory. The poison was put in a telephone mouthpiece on a piece of cotton wool. He is convinced that the Skripals were not poisoned by his novichok as it would have been absolutely deadly immediately. Rink kept a supply of chemical weapons stored in his garage!
Without samples of the Russian novichoks, it is impossible to say that the poison came from Russia. With samples,it can be done by looking for matching impurities in Russian samples, if they exist, that correspond to the Salisbury sample. It can be done less reliably by looking for matching impurities in the precursors. It could just possibly be done by looking at the ratios of phosphorous isotopes in the compound. This could indicate the general area in which the phosphates were mined. Unfortunately Russia is one of the biggest exporters of phosphates in the world so Russian phosphates could be anywhere. The only useful conclusion would be their absence.
OpportunitySeems very unlikely that someone was wandering around Salisbury with a spray can, on the off chance of being able to spray a poison on a bunch of flowers, a pizza or the family cat. Even the car door handle or the outside door handle seem extremely uncertain. Also, the personal hazard to the assassin would have been enormous. The assassin would have had to have complete trust in any antidote. None are known. Neither of the versions of poison delivery offered by zerohedge seem to work out. With the exception of the cat, the chance of discovery while administering the poison would have been high.
On the other hand, It would have been comparatively easy for someone to hand a package to Julia just before she left Moscow. A package from a stranger might have been suspicious But it could have been someone she knew. Many Russian public services have a special day of celebration. This includes the FSB. Yes, there is such a thing is the secret policeman’s Ball. I have seen one myself. The older men sing in a choir. The young women dance on the stage. There are sideshows for the children. Organisations like the FSB also had their own holiday camps along the Black Sea Coast. It is possible that Julia knew and trusted many of her father’s colleagues from attending such events in childhood. It would have been easy to accept the parcel from one of them. Alternatively, her luggage might’ve been intercepted before boarding the flight but that would have been more difficult and less certain. Exposing Julia and the aircraft passengers to potential poisoning suggests a certain lack of precision that is more Mafia than Secret Service. Participation by an FSB officer does not automatically mean government involvement. Against this, Rink considers that the poison would not survive the journey (so mixed in the UK?). Perhaps it didn't in its most lethal form which explains the survival and recovery of the victims.
Finally, someone could have broken into the house during Sergei Skripal’s absence to collect his daughter from Heathrow airport and planted the poison. This would have required some knowledge of his movements. This would have been simple to arrange for a close associate in the UK. Again, this suggests a certain indifference to the fate of a potentially innocent bystander, a Russian citizen to boot.
Death from a difficult to detect, fast fading poison in a domestic situation would have been difficult to ascribe to any particular source and if only one person was involved, could have looked natural. Middle aged men die of heart disease all the time.
Illegal arms dealing in chemical weaponsNovichoks are far from unknown and obscure. The British company sky TV and the American company Cinemax co-produced the spy thriller called Strike Back:Retribution. It was first broadcast on 17 October, 2017. A key part of the plot involves a novichok. A rogue Russian scientist makes the nerve agent in a Mafia lab otherwise used to produce crystal meth. The lab is located in Ukraine near Chernobyl This series could have bought the attention of mafia gangs, Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and terrorists everywhere to the novichoks.
Skripal was a personnel officer in the FSB. He had access to the phone book. He supplied the names in the phonebook to the British Secret Service. He was caught and sentenced to 13 years in jail. He was extracted during a spy swap. 13 years in jail does not suggest that he was an important spy. Skripal betrayed his country and his colleagues (as suggested by the FSB Day celebrations, Russian teams are close knit) for money. Perhaps he was again motivated by money, despite having a comfortable life in Salisbury even if it stopped short of conspicuous consumption.
Somebody from a terrorist organization (ISIS wanting revenge for Syria? Ukranian oligarchs?) could have contacted Skripal asking for Novichok. Skripal then arranged for a chemist formerly working for the USSR development programme to make some additional product (Rink had already done exactly that) or perhaps there were some leftover supplies in Mafia hands from the plant in Uzbekistan. Julia worked for PepsiCo. One of the difficulties PepsiCo faced when entering Russia was that Wimm-Bill-Dann, its takeover target owned a specialist company capable of producing defence material, such as microbial agents. Julia might have arranged synthesis of the chemicals.
So Skripal may have been sourcing and reselling a Novichok on behalf of a terrorist organization, for use anywhere.
When the package was delivered and opened at his house, something had gone wrong, resulting in contamination of Skripal, his daughter and later the police sergeant. This seems the least awkward explanation for the near death of the Skripals.
SuicideSergey Skripal had lost his close family. He suffered from type I diabetes. He had no regular employment. These are conditions to trigger depression and thoughts of suicide. Julia however was 33 with a good corporate job and a boyfriend.
Attempted AssassinationWhy would anyone want to assassinate Skripal? The Russian government had given him a modest sentence and included him in a spy swap. All he had to do to live a long quiet life was to give up the spy game after an initial debriefing. To attract attention, he would have had to become active in security matters. It appears that he did in fact become active.
Skripal had been recruited for British intelligence by a spy called Pablo Miller who now lives in Salisbury. Miller’s boss was Christopher Steele. After Steele left MI6,He joined an investigation company called Orbis. Orbis was commissioned by an unknown client of Fusion GPS, Orbis’ partner in the US to investigate connections between Donald Trump and Russia. This resulted in a scandalous dossier about Trump and his alleged connections with Russia. Steele and his family mysteriously disappeared for two months after the source of the dossier was revealed. As Steele's available Russian, Skripal is said to have provided contacts for Steele to compile the dossier at the very least to have checked it. There is already a trail of dead bodies concerned with the dossier. FSB General Oleg Erovinkin an alleged source for the dossier was found dead in his car in December. In February, a Saratov Airlines flight leaving Domodedovo airport on an unusual route for the airline crashed killing all on board. Sergei Millian said to be one of the sources for the dossier is alleged to have been on board. Certainly he has disappeared.
According to Craig Murray, the UK’s former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Skripal reviewed Steele’s dossier in return for cash. This would have attracted the attention of the CIA, the FSB and MI6.
It is by far from clear that Russia did anything. The timing, on the day Russia announced the countdown for FIFA 2018 and just before Russia’s Presidential election seems supremely bad. The Ukrainians, government or mafia might have been willing subcontractors to the agencies above and eager to embarrass Russia.
I haven't discussed a killing by FSB colleagues acting independently of the Russian Government because I think it unlikely. It's a long time since Skripal left Russia. The Sun newspaper claims that Julia's boyfriend works for a Russian security service. His mother a high ranking official was so upset by the relationship that she arranged to poison the Skripals by giving Julia a present.
No good conspiracy theory can be completed without a reference to Israel. There are many mentally ill people on the web who attribute all wrongs to the Jews. Craig Murray, the ambassador discussed above, suggests that Israel has the capability, the country is not a member of the OPCW and the motivation to have attempted the assassination. (I suspect that Mossad's list of attempted assassinations is a short one). The motive, according to Murray would be to keep Russia and the UK apart at the peace negotiations about Syria due to start in two weeks time. This suggestion seems extraordinary. Another motivation would be to keep Trump in office. Again this seems extraordinary.
For what it is worth, I think the illegal arms deal gone wrong is the most likely scenario. Action by countries associated with the Trump-Russia dossier cannot be ruled out. This does bring Russia back into the frame but it also brings in the US or the UK acting for the US.
The next place to look for evidence is Moscow. British-Russian relations seems to make that impossible.
Update 19 July
Now a perfume spray bottle containing the nerve agent. has been found in Salisbury, I tend to favour the FSB did it because Skripal broke the rules and became involved in the Steele dossiet.
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Update to be improved.
Ex GRU agents act as mules to bring poison to Skripal for assassinations. Various sources say that Skripal was very busy in Mafia work in Spain. But more likely they tried to kill him. The perfume bottle is the clincher. Loose end. The cat. Loose end. The BMW in Amesbury which disappeared off the news. Loose end The perfume bottle first found "under a park bench" then "in a skip". Who rumages in a skip and then takes a perfume bottle? There is alcohol in them but the amount would be tiny. Wold a derelict junkie know this?