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