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12/03/2018 | Espionage - Has the cold war idea of ¨spy etiquette¨ disappeared?

Ewen MacAskill

Sergei Skripal’s poisoning appears to have broken unwritten rules, but some say they never existed.


US and Russian intelligence officers who operated during the cold war largely acknowledge that Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a fair portrayal of how a spy swap used to be. The movie reflects a world in which there seemed to be an unwritten “spy etiquette”. Those captured would be exchanged rather than executed, and would not be hunted down later in revenge assassinations.

Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said this etiquette had broken down under Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and former KGB officer..

Speaking after the nerve agent attack against the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, Galeotti said: “During the cold war, there was an understanding about what was and what was not acceptable.”

He said Putin and the FSB, the successor security agency to the KGB, are different from their predecessors. “The FSB works with impunity. They do not know the rules, and if they did, they do not care about them,” Galeotti said.

Cold war-era statistics appear to back up the idea of a code of honour. No Russian who defected to the US or Europe in that period seems to have been assassinated. The same is apparently true of Americans who went to Russia, though Russians will mumble in private about what they consider to be at least one suspicious suicide.

The attempted murder of Skripal, who came to the UK as part of a spy swap in 2010, the first since 1984, would be a first breach of these supposed unwritten rules if it could be proved it was state sponsored.

Oleg Kalugin, a former major general in the KGB now living in the US, has a more jaundiced view. In a phone interview from his home in Virginia, Kalugin was blunt: “I am not familiar with any such [spy] etiquette.”

Kalugin, who was in the KGB for 32 years and at one point was Putin’s boss, portrays spying in the cold war as ruthless. There was only one rule: to win. He talks about secret KGB poison laboratories, which as far as he knows still exist, and assassinations.

The former KGB operative, who was responsible for foreign counterintelligence, dealing with overseas spies, says he was in the room at the agency’s headquarters in Moscow in 1978 when the decision was taken to provide poison to Bulgaria’s secret service for the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.

Markov was killed while waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge by a pellet containing ricin, fired from a modified umbrella. Kalugin, who denies any responsibility for Markov’s murder, was detained by British police on a visit to London in 1993 and held overnight, facing questions about Markov. But he was released and flew to Moscow the next day.

Kalugin, who has lived in the US since 1995, says he finds the poisoning attempt in Salisbury puzzling. “Well, it is a really confusing picture. I do not see it as professional. I do not see a reason why he [Skripal] would be killed. He is not the kind of figure that would be dealt with in that way,” he says.

He has no idea whether or not Russia was involved but does not rule out the possibility of the involvement of Putin. “He would use poison, if necessary,” he says.

Kalugin says he knew the former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with polonium in London in 2006, and had warned him six months before the poisoning to tone down his criticism of Putin.

British intelligence agencies appear to be as perplexed as Kalugin about the murder attempt on the Skripals, unable to see any logic in it being state sponsored. The agencies are weighing up other possibilities, though Russian involvement of some sort is regarded as the likeliest scenario.


A former Foreign Office adviser said Putin might have considered the UK so weak he felt he could afford to sanction such acts, and might have wanted to send a message to deter others from contemplating betrayal.

The idea of spy etiquette applies mainly to spies attached to embassies. They are not publicly described as spies, but their existence is an open secret. They meet their opposite numbers from other embassies and share intelligence.

There were about 40 such spies attached to the Soviet embassy in London during the cold war, and it is estimated that there are about the same number in the Russian embassy. The worst fate they face is being outed or, if caught up in a diplomatic row, expelled. 

There are other Russian spies who arrived in the UK under another guise; without the protection of diplomatic immunity, their existence is more precarious. Then there are the British-born agents who are recruited to provide information; these are the most vulnerable, facing the prospect of long prison sentences.

Col Chris Costa, who until recently was the senior director for counter-terrorism on the White House national security council, is the executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.

Like Kalugin, he does not recognise the terms spy etiquette or spy rulebook. “There are examples of people being beaten up, roughed up,” says Costa, who worked in intelligence for 30 years. “It would be very dangerous to make the assumption that there are rules.”

Given the murders of Markov and Litvinenko, Costa considers it highly likely the attack on the Skripals was an intelligence operation. He says the Russians are “extremely active”, engaged in the use of hybrid warfare and operating in “grey zones”.

Rory Cormac, a professor specialising in intelligence at Nottingham University and the author of a forthcoming book on British covert operations, says there are some rules. But, reflecting on a series of Soviet-era murders, he adds: “It [the cold war] was pretty brutal.”


The Guardian (Nigeria)


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