Nine points on the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal

After chairing a meeting of the U.K.’s national security council earlier today, British Prime Theresa May read a prepared statement to the House of Commons in which she stated the following:

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal…

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others…

Should there be no credible response [from Russian authorities within 48 hours], we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures we will take in response…

With that as backdrop, my take on where we’re headed with the Skripal incident is as follows.

1. It is quite likely that British investigators will identify who the immediate perpetrators were. There is a huge investigatory team working on the case, and there are CCTVs all over the place in the U.K.

2. It is very likely that the perpetrators will have already left the U.K., and if so, there will be no immediate arrests by British authorities. There is some chance that the perpetrators are still in Britain, and some chance that individuals who conspired with perpetrators may get arrested. But both possibilities seem quite unlikely, given that an elaborate conspiracy based in Britain isn’t needed to organize something like this. You just send in agents with the necessary stuff and make sure they fly home immediately (as with the perpetrators of the Litvinenko assassination).

3. It is highly likely that the assassination attempt was organized out of Russia. Skripal was a former GRU officer who spied on behalf of MI6; he reportedly provided the Brits with a great deal of useful intelligence; he was caught, tried, and sentenced to 13 years in prison in Russia; and he was pardoned and traded in a spy swap in 2010. There have been no reports that he or his daughter was involved in any activities that might have led someone to try to kill them for any reason other than Skripal having been a double agent. So it is highly likely that he was targeted because he was a Russian GRU agent who ended up working for MI6.

The kicker, however, is May’s confirmation today that a rare and potent nerve agent was used in the operation. May claim was that the U.K. Defense Ministry’s Porton Down Laboratory had concluded that the nerve agent was from a group known as Novichuk, which is known to be produced in Russia. We will learn more about the forensics in the days ahead, but I think it is highly likely that we will have the same degree of confidence in the Porton Down conclusion on this occasion that we had with the polonium-210 conclusion in the Litvinenko case – which is to say, a great deal of confidence.

If it is correct that this a nerve agent with a Russian signature was the attempted murder weapon, then any explanation other than a Russia-based one (e.g., it was carried out by some terrorist organization; it was a hit by some unknown organized crime network; it was just a random act of violence; it was carried out by MI5 or the CIA in an effort to discredit Moscow and precipitate a boycott of the World Cup to be hosted by Russia this summer; etc.) is (almost entirely) implausible.

4. It is highly likely that the operation was carried out by individuals associated with Russian intelligence services. Assuming it was indeed organized out of Russia, other possibilities are agents of the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, or perhaps non-state actors, such as Russian organized criminals or militant nationalists.

Kadyrov agents, I should note, are suspected in the murder of the Russian liberal opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, in what may well have been a “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest” hit. That is, Kadyrov may have ordered the assassination on the assumption that he was doing Putin a favor (which probably was not, in fact, the case).

If the weapon in Skripal’s attempted assassination had been a gun or knife, a Kadyrov operation would have been plausible. Happily, however, nerve agents are difficult to produce or acquire, which is why al-Qaeda and ISIS, for example, have never used them. (Nerve agents have been used by state actors in a few instances, notably North Korea in the assassination of Jim Jung-un’s half brother in 2017 in Indonesia.) But it is therefore  unlikely that Kadyrov’s agents would be able to get their hands on a weapons-grade nerve agent, and if they did, they would be very unlikely to used them in an independent operation because they’d assume, no doubt correctly, that the Kremlin would go ballistic knowing they possessed such a dangerous weapon. If Chechens were involved, it is therefore very likely that they were cutouts for Russian intelligence services, which provided them with just enough of the nerve agent for the operation.

Even that strikes me as highly unlikely, however, because Russian intelligence agencies, particularly the FSB, wouldn’t trust the Chechens with such an important and risky operation, and because the Kremlin wouldn’t trust them with the nerve agent.

Another reason why the odds are that Russian intelligence services were involved is of course the precedent factor. There is overwhelming evidence that the assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 was carried out by two Russian intelligence agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun, using another hard-to-acquire and rare poison, polonium-210. There is also good reason to suspect that Russian security services have carried out assassinations and attempted assassinations of other “traitors” abroad, beginning no later than the assassination of the one-time vice-president of the Chechen rebel government, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, in Qatar in 2004.

Also relevant is a controversial, albeit ambiguous, 2006 law that gives the Russian president the authority to use the Russian military and security services to combat “terrorism” beyond Russian borders. Critics have claimed that the law gives the Russian president legal authority to order the assassination of turncoats on foreign soil. My take is that Putin doesn’t really need that law to allow him to order Russian security services to carry out “wet” operations abroad, but it helps, and more importantly, it sends a signal of intent.

5. It’s a tossup whether U.K. investigators or intelligence agencies will be able to identify any co-conspirators who remained in Russia. The Kremlin stonewalled British investigators of the Litvinenko assassination, but it did allow U.K. investigators to travel to Russia and interview a number of people, including Lugovoi and Kovtun. I seriously doubt that the Kremlin will go that far this time given the political atmosphere in Russia and how much worse Moscow’s relations are with the U.K. and the West. Without (extremely unlikely) cooperation from Moscow, the only way the Brits might be able to identify Russia-based conspirators is (1) if they arrest a perpetrator who gives up what he/she knows; (2) through human intelligence assets in Russia; or (3) thanks to Russian-based investigative journalism or leaks. The former (1) seems very unlikely; (2) and (3) are rather less so.

6. It’s a tossup whether British investigators (or intelligence services) will be able to identify with confidence which, if any, Russian intelligence services were involved in the operation. Again, that only happens if they (1) arrest a perpetrator who gives up what he/she knows; (2) (most likely) through human intelligence; or (3) through Russian-based investigative journalism or leaks.

7. It is very unlikely that U.K. investigators or intelligence services will be able to identify who gave the orders for the operation – notably whether the operation was ordered or vetted by someone in the Kremlin, including Putin. Even if they manage to identify Russia-based conspirators, perhaps including the person who gave the immediate orders/instructions for the operation (say, Colonel So-and-so of the FSB), British investigators and intelligence services will not know whether Colonel So-and-so had gone rogue or was acting on instructions from above. If they manage to identify Major General So-and-so who gave Colonel So-and-so the orders, they won’t know if Major General So-and-so received instructions or approval from the Kremlin. I suspect any information about possible Kremlin authorization will be of suspect credibility, and more importantly will have to be kept secret.

That said, it is my guess (again, deduction, no hard evidence) that an operation like this, given its geopolitical significance, would not be carried out without approval from the Kremlin, and probably not without approval from Putin himself.

8. It is highly unlikely that U.K. investigators or intelligence services agencies will know with confidence what the motive was. Notably, they won’t know if it was meant to be simply a signal from the Kremlin to past and future double agents and defectors that, sooner-or-later, they will pay for their actions with their lives. Alternatively, it may have been intended as a signal to the U.K. and its Western allies that the Kremlin has many ways to make political life more complicated for its Western adversaries. Or it may have been intended to demonstrate Western impotence.

And it could have been all of the above.

My take on the primary motive was probably to send yet another signal that the Kremlin will seek to assassinate Russian security service turncoats living abroad – a “don’t mess with me” signal. Putin has stated or implied as much on many occasions. Notably, there is a video clip of him stating before a televised audience shortly after the 2010 spy swap that involved Skripal the following:

Traitors will kick the bucket. Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them.

While this is much less dispositive, it is also noteworthy that, while Russian officials of course deny any Russian involvement in the Skripal incident, media voices have taken the opportunity to remind past and future turncoats, along with Western governments, that bad things happen to those who betray Russia. In particular, Kirill Kleimenov, a commentator on Russia’s flagship state television network, Channel One, had the following to say on prime-time television earlier this week:

I have sympathy for any suffering, and under no circumstances would I wish death on anyone. But for purely educational purposes, I have a warning for anyone who dreams of such a career. It’s much more dangerous than being a drug dealer. It’s very rare that those who have chosen it have lived in peace until a ripe old age. Alcoholism, drug addiction, stress, and depression are inevitable professional illnesses of a traitor and lead to heart attacks and suicides.

He offered some further advice:

Don’t choose England as a place to live. Whatever the reasons, whether you’re a professional traitor to the motherland or you just hate your country in your spare time, I repeat, no matter, don’t move to England. Something is not right there. Maybe it’s the climate. But in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with a grave outcome. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows in industrial quantities.

9. It is virtually certain that the U.K. will follow up with more sanctions, although it is unclear just what those sanctions will be. I will have more to say on this in a future post, but for now let me make three related points: (1) I very much doubt the Kremlin will care much about whatever sanctions the U.K. imposes unilaterally, including targeting dirty Russian money in Britain; (2) I doubt the Kremlin will care much if the U.K. and a few other countries boycott the upcoming World Cup games; and (3) any sanctions the U.K. adopts would be enormously more effective if they were part of a coordinated response with the U.K.’s NATO and E.U. allies. That, however, is much less likely than would have been the case in the absence of Brexit and Trump’s victory in November 2016.