Spy fail

Burn After Reading GRU

Suspected GRU operative

The GRU, what happened to you?

It must go down as one of the most embarrassing months ever for Russia’s military intelligence.

In the 30 days since Theresa May revealed the cover identities of the Salisbury poison suspects, the secretive GRU (now GU) has been publicly exposed by rival intelligence agencies and online sleuths, with an assist from Russia’s own president.

Despite attempts to stonewall public inquiry, the GRU’s dissection has been clinical. The agency has always had a reputation for daring, bolstered by its affiliation with special forces commando units and agents who have seen live combat.

But in dispatching agents to the Netherlands who could, just using Google, be easily exposed as graduates of an elite GRU academy, the agency appears reckless and absurdly sloppy.

In response to the surreal interview with the Skripal poisoning suspects, I wrote: “I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?” It gets worse:

[…] And then came Thursday’s bombshell: four men outed by Dutch investigators for attempting to hack into the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (as well as Malaysia’s investigation into a downed jetliner).

The alleged spies were caught carrying enough telephones to fill an electronics store. Moreover, like all meticulous Russians on a business trip, they held on to their taxi receipts from GRU headquarters.

At a glance, it’s hard to square such ridiculous incompetence with the idea that Putin and his operatives are crafty enough to destroy Western democracy. In any case, the GRU’s epic fails do seem to indicate the declining value of human intelligence in the age of the internet.

Putin doesn’t like Skripal much

Of that we can be reasonably certain:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has labelled poisoned ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal a “traitor” and a “scumbag”.

In a speech, he complained that the media were treating Mr Skripal as “some kind of human rights defender”, insisting he had betrayed his country.

Mr Skripal and his daughter survived an attack in Salisbury, which the UK says was carried out by two agents of Russian military intelligence.

But a British woman died in another poisoning that police say was linked.

UK authorities believe Mr Skripal’s door in the southern English city was targeted with the nerve agent Novichok.

It was sprayed from a modified perfume bottle that was later picked up and given to Dawn Sturgess, who died in July, they say.

Last month, President Putin insisted that the suspects named by UK police were civilians not criminals, and urged them to come forward. They later gave a televised interview.

Now, this doesn’t prove that Putin had him poisoned, of course, although the evidence appears to point in that direction. But then there’s this strange report that Skripal himself rules out the idea of Moscow’s involvement:

The former employee of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who was poisoned in Salisbury, UK, said he does not believe that the Russian special services could have been involved in the attempted murder. He said this in a statement to BBC journalist Mark Urban, who published an excerpt of the conversation in his book called The Skripal Files.

The reporter was able to talk to Skripal when the ex-colonel regained consciousness. The book says that the intelligence officer had to go through a difficult process of psychological adaptation.

Urban claims that Skripal refused to believe in the Kremlin’s involvement in what happened. Moreover, the former GRU colonel said he supported Russia’s policy, such as the reunification of the Crimea and Russia. However, Skripal did not say what his theory was regarding the incident.

And then there is the absolutely bizarre, hilarious televised interview mentioned above, in which the two poisoning suspects protest their innocence to RT. It really needs to be seen (or read) to be believed:

RT interview Boshirov Petrov

What were Petrov and Boshirov doing in the UK?

Petrov: Our friends have been recommending that we visit this wonderful city for a long time already.

Boshirov: It’s a touristic city. There’s a famous cathedral there, the Salisbury cathedral. It’s famous not just in all of Europe, it’s famous all over the world I think. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first clock made in the world that still runs.

Petrov: In fact, we planned to go to London and let loose, so to speak, it wasn’t a business trip. We planned to go to London and in Salisbury in one day. In England on March 2 and March 3 there was a transport collapse – snow so powerful – we couldn’t get back.

Petrov: We were there three days. We came on March 2, we looked at the train schedule.

Boshirov: We planned to go for one day and look around. Salisbury is a normal touristic city.

Petrov: We came to Salisbury on the March 3, we were there for, we tried to walk around the city, but since the city was covered in snow, we were able to only for a half an hour, we got wet.

Boshirov: No media, no TV channels are showing that on that day, the third, there was a collapse in that city, a snow collapse, it was impossible to go anywhere, we got wet to the knees.

Petrov: Of course we went to visit Stonehenge, Old Sarum, the cathedral of the Virgin Mary, but it didn’t work out because it was slush, as we’d say in Russian, total slush. We got wet, returned to the train station and went back on the next train.

What did they do in Salisbury?

Boshirov: We were drinking hot coffee because we had gotten all wet, on the third we spent no more than an hour there.

Petrov: The trains were going with big gaps because of the transport collapse, we went back to London and continued our travels.

Boshirov: We walked around London. On the third yes (an hour in Salisbury).

Petrov: It wasn’t possible to go anywhere. On March 4 we returned because London had thawed out, it was warm weather.

Boshirov: The sun was shining.

Petrov:We wanted to visit Old Sarum and the cathedral, we decided to finish this task on March 4. To visit them.

Boshirov: To see this famous cathedral, to look at Old Sarum. We saw them.

Petrov: On March 4 we saw them, but again around lunch snow started, that’s why we left early.

Boshirov: The cathedral is very beautiful, there are lots of tourists there, there are lots of Russian tourists, there are lots of Russian-speaking tourists there.

Petrov: There should be many photographs (with us). Of course we took pictures.

Boshirov: We were sitting in the park, we were sitting in a cafe and drinking coffee. We were walking around and enjoying this English Gothic, this beauty.

Petrov: For some reason they’re not showing this. They’re only showing us at the train station.

Did they visit Sergei Skripal’s house?

Petrov: Maybe we went by there.

Boshirov: Do you know where the Skripals’ home is? I don’t.

Petrov: If we would have known where it was.

Boshirov: Maybe we passed by it, maybe we didn’t pass by it, I don’t know, I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard this surname, I didn’t know anything about them before this situation, this nightmare with us started.

Did they have Novichok in a perfume bottle?

Boshirov: No.

Petrov: I think this is total nonsense.

On and on it goes, like a bad Coen brothers movie. A total PR disaster for these guys and for Putin. I thought Russian intelligence operatives were supposed to be smart? What is going on here?

The complexities and unknowns of the Skripal affair are way above my pay grade, but it is entertaining to watch.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Lying about chemical weapons

Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused foreign secretary Boris Johnson of being less than entirely honest about who poisoned former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

Labour has called for an investigation into whether Boris Johnson “misled” the public over Russian involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier implied the foreign secretary had exaggerated the findings of the UK’s defence laboratory, Porton Down. […]

Labour said in an interview given to German TV last month, Mr Johnson said that “people from Porton Down” were “absolutely categorical”, adding: “I asked the guy myself. I said ‘are you sure?’, and he said ‘there’s no doubt’.”

But on Tuesday the Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the Novichok nerve agent used, although it did say it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor”.

Labour called on the prime minister to launch an investigation into whether Mr Johnson broke the ministerial code.

A state actor. Hmm. That’s a far cry from pinning the blame on Putin, as so many are keen to do.

The truth about these matters is often hard to establish. What is clear, in this case, is that we simply do not know who poisoned Skripal, and with what motive.

Naturally, that won’t stop the absurd saber-rattling, mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, and crazed ramping up of tensions with the world’s number two nuclear power. Why let rational thought get in the way of that?

On the Skripal poisoning

Richard Sakwa, a Russia expert at the University of Kent, has some thoughts about the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

These are the circumstances and the consequences, but the whole affair raises many troubling questions. Is the case so clear-cut that the authorities in Moscow, and possibly Putin personally, ordered the assassination? After all, Skripal, a former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer who had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI6, and had then worked as a double agent, had been part of a prisoner swap in 2010, and had lived openly in Salisbury every since. Why would the Russian authorities want to kill him? How would it benefit them, especially in conditions where relations are so bad anyway? If they wanted him killed, there are easier ways – unless of course it was for the demonstration effect, and to alienate the British government even more. These may well be considerations among parts of the Russian security elite, angry at Skripal’s betrayal of a reputed 350 Russian agents. As well as motive, there is also the question of timing. Why now, just weeks before the Russian presidential election of 18 March, when Putin won by a landslide for a fourth term. […]

Let us assess the various theories in turn. The official British government position, outlined by prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on 12 March, is that either the Russian state was responsible, or that the authorities had lost control over the nerve agent, identified now as part of the Novichok family of nerve agents. These, May insisted, were the only two plausible explanations. Later, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 16 March alleged that Putin had personally ordered the killing, and then on 18 March he told the British media that Russia had secretly accumulated chemical and biological weapons. He hinted that the British government had information that the order had come directly from the Kremlin. […]

Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases [Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berzovsky and Boris Nemtsov] has been demonstrated to lead back to the Kremlin. In fact, the argument could be made that these deaths, and others, were ‘provocations’; in the sense that they reflected factional fighting in Moscow and the regions (notably Chechnya), and were ways of signalling threats to the Kremlin to force it to adopt certain policies and not others. […]

Unless serious evidence to the contrary emerges, I would be deeply sceptical that Putin took a personal interest in killing Skripal. What would he gain! Such a version only makes sense if two conditions hold: that Putin has nothing better to do than go around killing opponents who long ago have lost any relevance; and the Russian state is out to subvert the West. As the British foreign office put it in a propaganda video, Russia was out to ‘undermine world order’. This of course is the version repeated in the British mass media, including from some formerly respectable newspapers – but it is nonsense. […]

Novichok [the nerve agent] had been developed in Shikhany in central Russia, and according to the whistle-blower Vil Mirzayanov, it was then tested in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s controls of weapons stores had been notoriously lax, and social media have repeatedly suggested that some could have found its way to Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The material could have been smuggled out of the country by unknown parties, possibly criminals. It is also not too difficult to reconstitute the agent in a laboratory. Britain sent a sample of the Salisbury material to the OPCW, but Russia also requested a sample, as it is entitled to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The British refused.

And here is an excerpt from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

A number of things jump out at me here:

  • The PM did not conclusively blame the Russian government, but rather said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. The statement allows for the possibility that Russia had simply lost control of its stockpile of Novichok. That’s, again, the official position of the British government. By that logic, some other actor could have conceivably carried out the attack, without Putin’s knowledge.
  • Sakwa offers an additional four or five possible explanations for the attack, most of which seem plausible to me.
  • The French government was initially skeptical of the idea of Russian culpability, accusing May of “fantasy politics.” That’s pretty interesting.
  • The British summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an explanation for the poisoning, but refused to provide the Russians with samples of the nerve agent so they could conduct their own investigation. This is a bit like asking someone when he stopped beating his wife. Imagine how this would be perceived by the Russian side if, in fact, they did not order the attack.
  • The question of motive remains unanswered. It’s hard to see what Putin would have to gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and thereby significantly ramping up tensions with NATO. That would not appear to be in Putin’s or Russia’s interests. It could be argued that Putin wanted to “send a message” — but then, what message? Don’t mess with us? If so, the ploy has backfired miserably, as Britain seems to have decided to mess with Russia a whole lot more.

It’s very easy to give in to hysteria on this issue, and jump to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Given the stakes involved — potential war with a nuclear power — I would suggest that it’s very dangerous to do so.