Putin, Skrypal, Novichok, and Spy Markets

by Gordon M. Hahn

British Prime Minister Teresa May has accused the Russian state and President Vladimir Putin in the poisoning and attempted murder of former Russian GRU agent Sergei Skrypal, his daughter, and some 22 others in Salisbury, England. May offered a caveat that perhaps the Russian state had lost control over its chemical weapons, possession of which is a violation of international ban on chemical weapons, as she emphasized.  There are in fact more than two possible versions of this crime, and the British and Western governments and \allied media infrastructure are repeating several inaccuracies about the nerve agent allegedly used in the attack, suggesting that they could be getting this even wrong much as they have got much wrong since the ed of the Cold War in places such as Iraq, Georgia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. The following is a review of some of the possible versions of the attack and who might be behind it.

Five Macro-Scenarios

There are at least five general or macro-scenarios. Within each are variations, but I will deal here mostly with the macros.

(1) Putin ordered it. This is the real conclusion of May, Britain and almost the entire West. This version has several weak points. Why would Putin order the assassination of an operative who they released from prison and traded to the West ten years ago? Moreover, if Putin ordered the murder, then he would have been informed by the Russia state operatives charged with carrying out the assassination when they were ready to execute the operation. Would Putin have given the green light for such an attack to be launched on the territory of a foreign country with a seat on the UN Security Council in the week before the Russian presidential election, in a period when the Kremlin still hoped for an improvement in relations with the West, and on the eve of this year’s Soccer World Cup it is set to be host? It is possible that the former GRU agent Skrypal was using his contacts with British and Russian intelligence to the detriment of Russia, its intelligence services and/or Putin, and so Putin decided that he needed to be eliminated. But why use such a messy method of assassination? Are the Russian secret services so incompetent that they cannot assassinate a former GRU agent without using exotic poisoning methods that risk contaminating British civilians and setting off an international scandal that further darkens Russia’s image at this sensitive time? If the Russian intelligence services were behind the Litvinenko fiasco, why would they use a similar method over a decade later in the same country? Given the costs for his image in the West resulting from Litvinenko’s alleged murder, why would Putin approve the use of this exotic method of assassination again. Why not just abduct, kill and ‘disappear’ the target? This is an easy proposition for an intelligence service of the SVR’s caliber.  

(2) Putin knew of and allowed the operation to be carried out, lacking the means to stop the GRU from doing so. This is more likely than the first explanation, but not likely. Putin does not control everything that happens in Russia, but he has sufficient power and support to veto siloviki actions that go against his own preferences. 

(3) Putin did not know about the planned operation, which was carried out by rogue elements in the GRU and/or other siloviki departments, perhaps in collusion with organized crime. In this version, the operation was ordered by those who had either intelligence-, business- and/or politically-related reasons for killing Skrypal and/or spoiling Russian relations with Great Britain. This is more plausible than the two versions mentioned above and might be the most likely scenario. Putin is unable to control everything in Russia, as Chechnya’s de facto autonomy and other autonomous entities and events have demonstrated: Dagestan in the past openly rejecting Kremlin-appointed officials, the Nemtsov and Politkovskaya murders (likely killed by Chechens close to Kadyrov), and perhaps Sechin’s framing of Ulyukaev and the Litvinenko case.

(4) No Russian state agents were involved, but Russian organized crime was involved and had business and/or political reasons for killing Skrypal and/or spoiling Russian relations with Great Britain or were dealing Novichok with Skrypal and the nerve agent was mishandled leading to the contaminations, as I believe was the case with Polonium and Litvinenko, who was likely working in cahoots with Berezovskii, Chechens, Lugovoi, Kovtun (and perhaps others) to sell the nuclear trigger material.  This is the second most likely version.

(5) No Russians were involved at all. This scenario is the third most likely, given the timing and the fact that many anti-Russian actors gain from the further tainting of Russia’s reputation.

May’s ‘Russia Only’ Claims

May’s and the numerous other sources’ claims that the Novichok nerve agent the British government says was used to  poison Skrypal and the others was only produced in, and could have come from Russia skirts some crucial facts easily obtainable by Western intelligence and media sources yet consistently going unmentioned. These facts suggest the weaknesses of versions 1 and 2.

First, a 2006 terrorism and medical response publication “Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook” states that Novichok agents “can be made with common chemicals in relatively simple pesticide factories.” [Charles Edward Stewart, Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook (Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2006), p. 26, https://books.google.lv/books?id=7ZnXZfwWwgcC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q=fourth%20generation&f=false]. Therefore, the nerve agent used in Salisbury could in theory be from anywhere. Among the former Soviet republics with large pesticide plants are Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

Second, while Novichok was developed and produced in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, it was tested in Soviet Uzbekistan, according to the New York Times, where apparently they were also stored in sufficient quantities that the US Defense Department worked there to destroy or remove them under a non-proliferation agreement on destroying Russia’s chemical weapons (www.nytimes.com/1999/05/25/world/us-and-uzbeks-agree-on-chemical-arms-plant-cleanup.html).

Third, it is noteworthy that some Russian stocks went undeclared for unclear reasons [Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen. Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 25 cited at http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/russia_chemical_table3.pdf?_=1396918200%5D. Therefore, the agent could have fallen into the hands of Russian or even non-Russian non-state actors .

Fourth, the same 2006 “Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook” that is cited above notes that unspecified “Russian sources” might have given Novichok agents to Iraq and been encountered by US forces (Stewart, Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response Handbook, p. 26). Thus, in Iraq, Iraqis, Americans or whoever could have acquired the agent and passed it on to whomever.

Fifth, in 1995 a Novichok agent was reportedly used to poison Russian banker and head of the Russian Business Round Table Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailova. According to The Independent, a closed trial determined that Kivelidi’s business partner “obtained the substance via intermediaries from Leonard Rink, an employee of a state chemical research institute GosNIIOKhT, one of the two Russian locations where Novichok was developed. Rink told police he had been selling such poisons to pay debts (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/uk-russia-nerve-agent-attack-spy-poisoning-sergei-skripal-salisbury-accusations-evidence-explanation-a8258911.html). Kivelidi’s business partner, Vladimir Khutsishvili, was convicted for the killings. Thus, Novichok has already fallen into private hands from Russia, Uzbekistan, Iraq or somewhere.

Espionage Worlds, Spy Markets, and Black Markets 

We know that the world of intelligence is a murky one smoke, mirrors, cloaks, daggers, double agents, triple agents, former acting and acting former agents. The milieu of former intelligence officers is no less murky, comprised not just a wealth of a close-kept secrets but a market of secrets, weapons and other things to be sold and bought for private gain. London, Washington, Moscow, Vienna and Prague are awash in former Russian and especially Western intelligence agents with companies, front companies, fake companies and the like doing both legal and illegal business. Here is how on American journalist views spy markets as observed and utilized during his years at the New York Times:

“SUCCESS AS A REPORTER on the CIA beat inevitably meant finding out government secrets, and that meant plunging headlong into the classified side of Washington, which had its own strange dynamics.

“I discovered that there was, in effect, a marketplace of secrets in Washington, in which White House officials and other current and former bureaucrats, contractors, members of Congress, their staffers, and journalists all traded information. This informal black market helped keep the national security apparatus running smoothly, limiting nasty surprises for all involved. The revelation that this secretive subculture existed, and that it allowed a reporter to glimpse the government’s dark side, was jarring. It felt a bit like being in the Matrix.” (https://theintercept.com/2018/01/03/my-life-as-a-new-york-times-reporter-in-the-shadow-of-the-war-on-terror/)

Perhaps Skrypal, like Litvinenko, got mixed up in these spy markets, which are often interconnected between themselves and black markets. The London Times newspaper reports that Skrypal and his daughter shut off their GPS’s for four hours on the day they were found poisoned/contaminated (www.thetimes.co.uk/article/skripal-turned-off-phone-gps-during-missing-four-hours-xsnb07qbs). Who were they hiding from? Did they meet with someone in those hours? If so, with whom? Why?  

Moreover, we know it is not only Russia’s authoritarian government that lies and makes mistakes; all governments lie at times to their peoples and to other governments, and certainly they make mistakes. Lies are told to cover up mistakes, and mistakes are made to cover up lies. We know that democratic republican governments lie and make mistakes, though they certainly do so less often because the political risk of getting caught in one’s lies is greater. Events in the last decades in Iraq, Georgia, Libya, Syria and Ukraine demonstrate quite clearly that at times both Russia and the West have lied or been mistaken. Therefore, caution is the word of the day regarding the Skrypal affair.

London’s Response

It does seem that if the charges London is making are accurate and London is confident they are, then the sanctions put in place strike one as a very weak in comparison with the crime. A WMD chemical weapons attack ordered by the Kremlin for any reason is a casus belli in most worlds. Breaking off all diplomatic relations even seems a limp response in such circumstances. Perhaps, the relatively ‘timid’ response is a sign of doubt, hedging their bets at Downing Street. As May alluded to, if Putin did order this hit and did ensure that only the target(s) would suffer, then we are dealing with a veritable terrorist. If he ordered a precise hit and the operation went bad, accidentally contaminating British citizens, it is the act of a moral nihilist who if he degenerates could become a terrorist actor. If Putin did not order the hit and cannot control his siloviki, then pressure needs to be brought to force him to rein in his rogues. That could force the issue and spark a hardline coup against Putin, but at least in that event the masks will be off and the West will know what it is dealing with and can design a policy to fit the threat. As matters have been since the Cold War’s end, we have provoked the Russians with NATO and EU expansion and color revolutions, and they have gradually hardened into an authoritarian force increasingly inclined in partnership with China and at times with Iran to challenge the West.  

Governments with the 24-hour news cycle and instantaneous public outrage on the social web needs to react when a former Russian intelligence officer, his daughter and more than 20 British citizens are contaminated with an apparent nerve agent, and the most obvious explanation emerges from the words ‘Russian intelligence agent’. Logically or not, this points the finger at Moscow, and Downing Street must avoid ‘looking weak’ at all costs in such a sensitive situation. It had to act in order to be seen to be protecting its citizens, and it had to do so with incomplete information. It went with it saw as the version with the best odds to pan out, filtered through its perception of the state of affairs with Russia and operative words ‘Russian agent.’ The heavy sanctions deployed against Moscow are the result. The British plight in turn requires Western solidarity, and gravity of the situation escalates into a full-scale Western-Russian crisis. Another to add to the long chain of such crises going back to NATO expansion and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, running through Tbilisi, Tskhinvali, Tripoli, Damascus, Aleppo, Kiev, Crimea and Donbass, now London. How many more such crises can the tense relationship bare before it breaks down completely? Will it break in Donbass, Damascus, Transdnestr-Moldova, Moldova-Rumania, Kaliningrad and the Baltic states? It is anyone’s guess, but they are too few crises it can bare and too many flash points that can turn the new cold war hot.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org.

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014).He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn