Putin, Skrypal, Novichok, and Spy Markets: UPDATE

by Gordon M. Hahn

UPDATE:

NOVICHOK AGENT OR “RELATED COMPOUND”

On 22 March 2018 a petition was submitted to a court in the United Kingdom requesting a judgment, which was approved, as to whether the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons should be allowed to take samples of the blood of former GRU colonel Sergei Skrypal and his daughter in order to test which chemical agent was used in their contamination. In the judge’s released approved judgement it states: “Blood samples from Sergei Skripal and Yulia Skripal were analysed and the findings indicated exposure to a nerve agent or related compound. The samples tested positive for the presence of a Novichok class nerve agent or closely related agent” (www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/sshd-v-skripal-and-another-20180322.pdf, p. 10). This statement gives one to understand that the contaminating substance could have been Novichok it could have been a “related compound” or “closely related agent” and not Novichok. However, Prime Minister May charged on 12 March 2018 that “Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok.’” She also claimed there had been a “positive identification” of Novichok “by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down” (www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-commons-statement-on-salisbury-incident-12-march-2018). This suggests that PM May overstated the government’s findings in laying the contamination of the Skrypals and more than 20 UK citizens at the door of the Kremlin or uncontrolled rogue actors in Russia’s security organs.

YULIYA SKRYPAL IS ALIVE AND “WELL”

Yuliya Skrypal is alive and is “well” if a tape of a telephone conversation with her cousin played on Russian media, including TV channel 1 on Thursday evening is accurate. She seemed to say that not only she but her father was well, and she doubted the British authorities would give her cousin Viktoriya a visa to visit them given the “situation.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdQlaLw53zA). She released a statement saying she is recovering quickly, thanking the people of Salisbury and the hospital, and asking outsiders for patience as she recovers (https://echo.msk.ru/blog/echomsk/2178990-echo/). Viktoriya also verified that she spoke with Yuliya by phone (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2179090-echo.html).

RUSSIA’S RESPONSE

Russia’s Investigative Committee has offered to assist the British government in the Skrypal investigation (https://echo.msk.ru/news/2174834-echo.html), and Russia has called for sessions of both the UN Security Council and the Organization for the Control of Chemical Weapons in order to discuss the Skrypal case.

EXILED RUSSIAN BUSINESSMAN SAYS SKRYPAL HAS TIES TO ORGANIZED CRIME

On 28 May 2018 a Russian businessman self-exiled in London, Valerii Morozov, who knows Skrypal, told journalists that Skrypal might have had business with organized crime groups. What type of business dealing he did not say. Russian and American media reported only those statements by Morozov’ that supported their countries’ particular take on the affair.  Russian sources failed to mention Morozov’s involvement in Sochi Olympic construction contracts, which he said could only be won by paying  bribes, on of which he was asked to pay by deputy head of Putin’s presidential administration deputy head Leshevskii. Morozov apparently refused and then went to the police, who instead of investigating high-ranking official began to investigate him, forcing him to flee Russia for London. At same time, Morozov said that Skrypal may have had business ties to organized crime, that it is wrong to blame Putin for the attack, and that — as many political scientists with inside information and myself have warned — Putin does not control everything in Russia (https://ria.ru/world/20180328/1517422859.html and https://iz.ru/725541/2018-03-28/znakomyi-skripalia-rasskazal-o-kriminalnom-slede-v-dele-o-ego-otravlenii and http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2010/05/31/3377486.shtml). At the same time the US government-funded RFERL did not report Morozov’s claims of Skrypal’s criminal connections and statement that it is wrong to blame Putin. Instead, it focused exclusively on Morozov’s history with Sochi and Leshevskii (www.svoboda.org/a/29109086.html). Morozov indeed received Sochi construction contracts, and he himself has said contracts for such “major projects” are impossible to obtain without paying a bribe in interview in comments he made regarding the Uzbek ‘criminal authority’ (crime boss) Gafur, who also received Sochi contracts (https://rus.ozodi.org/a/uzbek-criminal-boss-refuse-sochi/25252385.html). It was interesting that Morozov also indicated in the interview regarding Skrypal that he had received threats that he was next to be killed. An encrypted email (Proton Mail developed by the European Organization for Nuclear Research or CERN) containing one of the alleged threats and shown in the Russian articles reporting Morozov’s claims of Skrypal’s criminal ties came from one Matteo Di Luca. A Matteo Di Luca was involved in extortion and racketeering in New York a few years back (http://www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/luca-dimatteo-nephew-lukey-dimatteo-face-extortion-racketeering-conspiracy-charges-feds-say-1.10653919).

The opposition, pro-democracy newspaper Novaya gazeta, journalists of which have been allegedly ‘killed by Putin’, published two detailed investigative reports documenting my point regarding Novichok’s availability to criminal groups on the black market since the mid-1990s as evidenced by the 1995 murder of businessman Kivelidi. Novaya gazeta provides documents from the questioning of Leonid Rink, a director of a department at Russia’s Shikhani plant that produced ‘Novichok’, who gave several samples to two different individuals, one of which was never recovered. From his testimony, he gave out some 5 samples each with doses a hundred times more powerful than needed to kill; 4 were recovered by the FSB upon arresting the criminal (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka and http://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/03/22/75896-rezhim-novichka). However, it is not know whether all the chemical agent in these vials was recovered. Moreover, on page 152 of the prosecutor’s report shown in the article, it is noted that Rink prepared 8-9 vials, not 5 (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka). The sample(s) not recovered certainly could have ended up on the black market and fallen into the hands of other criminals. Indeed, the same section notes that Rink sold a vial “to a person of Chechen nationality on 13 September 1995.” The Chechen link suggests a purchase by an organized crime member — Chechens had a large organized crime syndicate — or someone associated with the rebel Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya, at the time a mostly ultra-nationalist though evolving jihadi terrorist structure. That the sale occurred 10 months into the first Chechen war is of interest. Also of interest is that Rink was never arrested, perhaps having traded information for immunity or perhaps he was protected by a rogue siloviki group (www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/04/02/76026-otritsanie-novichka). ‘Oddly’, no Western media has picked up on these detailed reports. Only a Russian newspaper, embattled albeit, has had the courage to go against the trend in the liberal global media in its publications on the Skrypal case and publish real investigative reports.

None of this points to any concrete conclusion of the case. Putin could have ordered the attack, because Skrypal was working for British intelligence or others in a way contrary to Russian interests–a final betrayal after being spared and traded abroad ten years ago. More likely, Russians (and perhaps non-Russians) were involved without Putin’s knowledge: rogue state agents or criminal private groups or a mix. Or Skrypal — like Berezovskii, Litvinenko, Kovtun and Lugovoi before him — could have been trading a dangerous substance, with which he then mishandled and contaminated himself. We still don’t know and probably never will. And in the post-modern era of constructivism, each has his ‘own truth’ shaped by the disinformation age. 

EARLIER POST:

On 12 March 2018, the United Kingdom’s (UK) Prime Minister Theresa May 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 and 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. Perhaps Skrypal, like Litvinenko, got mixed up in these worlds. 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 Downey 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 Downey 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