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The UK and Russia: What is to be Done?

As Lenin once quipped at a key turning moment in his revolution, chto delat? (What is to be done?). That is precisely the question facing the UK after the attempted assassination in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

The UK should be basing its actions on the need to put a stop to the overall Russian policy of assassinating people abroad. For this policy of officially sanctioned assassinations is set in Russian law and advocated in public statements by the Russian leadership, including those made by President Vladimir Putin.

This self-proclaimed ‘prerogative’ has been exercised in several foreign countries, such as Qatar – where Russian agents have been convicted of the offence – but also Dubai, Turkey, Montenegro and Austria.

In Britain, we know that in recent years it has led to at least one death, that of Alexander Litvinenko, and one intended attempt, on Boris Berezovsky. And, of course, there is a prima facie case in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Our actions after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skirpal therefore must be much more formidable than our response to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko

That is and should be the basis as to why Britain is acting now. Several key principles should guide Whitehall’s actions. These are: 

  • Ensure that the regime that sponsors such behaviour, both its leaders and its main beneficiaries, pays a severe price, one that may cause it to reconsider its policy of assassination, at least in this country.
  • Ensure that the organisations responsible pay a severe price, one that will offer a reasonable prospect of deterring them from considering such activities in future and of limiting their capacity to repeat them.
  • Include reference to further measures to be taken if further outrages occur.

We should accept that our response to the assassination of Litvinenko was insufficiently attuned to these principles and that the attack on the Skripals is a consequence of that. Our actions this time therefore must be much more formidable.

In the case of punishing the Putin regime, this could include Magnitsky Act-like provisions that Prime Minister Theresa May alluded to in her speech in Parliament last week. It could include attacks on the regime’s many vulnerabilities, for example by following through on threats to freeze and seize assets in the UK, including property, associated with the regime and its beneficiaries.

And it would involve shoring up our own weaknesses, by taking steps to limit Moscow’s role in UK public life, particularly the ability of political parties and other organisations to take Russian money without severe scrutiny and limiting former officials’ ability to be employed by companies linked to the Kremlin oligarchy.

Not just the Foreign Office, Home Office, Ministry of Defence, Treasury, and Britain’s intelligence agencies but all departments could usefully be presented with a request to propose further measures for inclusion in the government’s reaction to the Salisbury outrage.

The expulsion of 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ should be seen not as a diplomatic slap in the face to Putin – after all, the Russian Ambassador has not been expelled, nor ours recalled from Moscow

In sum, the price for the regime should be a more disciplined and self-disciplined British policy towards Russia, a new approach that takes account of and deals with the regime’s hooliganism rather than merely expressing a desire to wish this repugnant behaviour away.

But particularly key here is the need to ensure that the Russian intelligence and security services that share responsibility for the Salisbury operation pay a price and have their capability to conduct future such actions materially limited.

In this regard, the expulsion of 23 Russian ‘diplomats’ should be seen not as a diplomatic slap in the face to Putin – after all, the Russian Ambassador has not been expelled, nor ours recalled from Moscow – but a concrete challenge to the capabilities of these hostile intelligence services.

This is because their resources working under diplomatic and other ‘official’ cover provide operational intelligence and other forms of support for Russia intelligence service assassination operations conducted under ‘non-official’ cover. For example, in 2004 in Qatar, Alexander Fetisov, a GRU (Russian foreign military intelligence) officer under cover as First Secretary in the Russian embassy was arrested with two colleagues under non-official cover for involvement in the operation that planted a bomb that killed an exile and wounded his thirteen-year-old son.

When the Soviet Russian intelligence service presence in the UK grew egregiously large and its activities difficult to monitor, the government settled on a policy that proved very successful. In 1971, virtually the entire intelligence representation was expelled.

Furthermore, a ceiling was imposed set at the new reduced total of officials that remained and it was made clear to the Soviets that, in the event of any further expulsion, the ceiling was to be reduced accordingly.

In addition, any person expelled was put on a list of Soviet officials refused further visas by the UK or by several allied countries. The mass expulsion was a tremendous shock to the KGB and the GRU.

In subsequent years, there were further large-scale expulsions, including a second clear out after the defection of Oleg Gordeyevsky, the acting KGB Resident, in 1985.

Actions against the 23 expelled diplomats should include as much as can be publicised about their identities and true duties, with illustrative accounts of their operational activities where possible

However, the other measures, and particularly the ceiling susceptible to further reduction, which acted like Edgar Allan Poe’s shrinking prison cell, proved even more effective. It worked as a permanent constraint on Russian intelligence service capability, expertise in anti-British operations, and morale. It succeeded in cowing them, and they never found an answer to it, so it should be introduced.

Alongside these measures it’s critical to assure allies and the British public alike of the justification for the government’s actions. Two key comparative strengths for the UK next to the Kremlin regime are the rooting of its authority in a true democratic mandate, and its large alliance network: the support of these key constituencies can be reinforced through provision of thorough explanation.

That should include as much as can be publicised about the identities and true duties of those expelled, with illustrative accounts of their operational activities where possible – the Russians publicised film of British intelligence officers working in Moscow when they expelled some of them.

Beyond that, a factually unassailable account of Russian assassination policy and practice should also be issued, including those that have occurred in recent years in Qatar, Dubai, Istanbul, Montenegro and Vienna.

And allied governments should be encouraged to weigh in with illustrative examples of their own. For example, the German government could provide the startling evidence produced by the Bundeskriminalamt investigation into Dmitry Kovtun’s meandering Polonium trail through Hamburg on his way to help in Litvinenko’s murder (much of which has been published but was not noticed at the time).

The Russian Embassy Residence in London

We also have a formidable amount of information about Russia’s record in this field, including its use of chemical poisons: Lenin himself set up the Toxicological Laboratory that has been used to murder political opponents and inconvenient foreigners with few brief interruptions ever since.

And Federal Security Service special forces put an end to a theatre siege in Moscow in October 2002 by using a synthetic opioid as an incapacitating agent; not only 40 terrorists involved in that standoff, but a further 130 hostages died as a result – needlessly, because through shameful secrecy or brutal incompetence they were denied the antidote.

The actions proposed here against the Russian intelligence presence may not be the most dramatic suggestions. But the UK’s response must acknowledge that British–Russian relations are not just some degrees worse than hitherto. For Russia under Putin has become not just a disappointing partner or a part-nuisance; it is now hostile, and Whitehall needs to adopt a policy to accept that.

The author is a senior former British intelligence official who has chosen to write this article anonymously to articulate unhindered views.


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