On the fourth episode of Russia Rising, we’ll visit Salisbury, England — the historic cathedral city that became the site of the first chemical nerve agent attack on European soil since the Second World War.
The poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergey Skripal in March 2018 prompted one of the most explosive and controversial allegations facing the Kremlin today: Were Russian secret intelligence agents responsible for the botched assassination? And if so, how could trained Russian spies have been so careless by leaving a trail of evidence for British investigators to follow?
In the search for answers, we’ll return to the scene of the crime and speak with former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev. “Let me tell you this: The GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service), would never do that (poisoning in Salisbury) without personal authorization from Putin. Never,” he says.
Vassiliev received his Soviet spy training in the 1980s at the same school and around the same time as Russian president Vladimir Putin. He says they were taught to always consider the big picture and the potential international consequences of their operations.
For that reason, he argues, Putin would never approve the Skripal assassination just months before Russia was set to host the FIFA World Cup tournament.
“The World Cup was an enormous event for Russia,” he says. “Russia was showing its good face to the world. They invested a huge amount of money and, according to international experts, that was one of the best World Cups ever. So you have to be really, really stupid to do something like the poisoning in Salisbury three months before the World Cup.”
But six months after the poisoning in Salisbury, British authorities released some compelling evidence — announcing criminal charges against two Russian suspects and publishing a dozen images of them. The two men were captured on security cameras arriving at the U.K.’s Gatwick Airport and travelling to Salisbury on the day of the poisoning, before flying back to Moscow.
British police even found traces of the rare nerve agent used in the poisoning, Novichok, inside their London hotel room.
The British government’s allegation that the two men were Russian GRU agents confused a lot of people, who wondered how Russian intelligence agents could be so unintelligent.
Charles Shoebridge is a former British counter-intelligence officer. “The whole operation, if it is indeed what has been alleged, has been carried out with a massive degree of incompetence from an operational perspective,” he says.
WATCH: Russia’s sloppy spycraft
But one person who was not surprised to hear about sloppy Russian spies is Russian journalist Roman Dobrokhotov, who has spent the past few years investigating Russian GRU activities. He says that suspected Russian agents have recently been caught conducting undercover operations in several countries and left behind trials of evidence.
“Everybody thinks that the Russian foreign intelligence is like something in Homeland or in House of Cards: super clever people, super professional, who can do very difficult tasks. But they are super unprofessional. This is all myth about their very great intelligence.”
We’ll speak with Dobrokhotov and his counterparts at Bellingcat, a British-based investigative news website, about how they uncovered the true identities of the alleged assassins in Salisbury, one of whom apparently used his real first name and birth date on his fake ID documents and had a vehicle registered to GRU headquarters in Moscow.
“It’s funny that his car was registered on GRU headquarters because it’s not a very clever thing to do,” Dobrokhotov says.
The Kremlin denies any involvement in the Skripal poisoning and President Putin has said that the two Russian suspects are innocent and ordinary civilians. We’ll cut through the contradicting claims and examine the evidence, including what it reveals about Russia’s intelligence operations.
Alexander Vassiliev, former KGB Agent
Charles Shoebridge, former British counter-intelligence officer
Roman Dobrokhotov, Editor in Chief of ‘The Insider’
Eliot Higgins / Founder of Bellingcat
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