Sun, Mar 11, 2018 - Page 7 News List

The old spy game rules are out the window

The apparent assassination attempt on the life of a former spy sends the signal that Russians working clandestinely for the West must forever look over their shoulder and that anyone working for Russia should do the same

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Tania Chou

British investigators are hopefully getting closer to knowing what poisoned the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. That does not mean that they will have any idea who did it. So it is far too early to talk of a Russian “declaration of war,” as some have done.

Understandably, though, the theory most popular in the UK media at the moment is that it was Russian spies who poisoned the former military intelligence colonel and his daughter, Yulia. This would surprise no one. That Russian intelligence is back in the business of executing traitors has been known since the case of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium in 2006.

If the Skripal situation is part of this practice, two things are striking about it because they would suggest that Russia has blown up unwritten spy game rules from which it has repeatedly benefited: first, that Skripal had been “off the board” after being tried, convicted and traded to the UK and, second, that his daughter had apparently been targeted along with him.

In 2010, the ex-colonel was one of four people who came to the West as part of a widely covered spy swap, in which the US released 10 Russian “sleeper agents.” There had been at least a dozen spy exchanges between Western countries and the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War, but this was the first publicly announced one in the Vladimir Putin era.

None of the people traded to the West in these swaps has ever been assassinated. The possibility of a swap is a perk that makes it marginally worthwhile to spy for a foreign power. The money paid to spies or the moral satisfaction of working against a hated regime is never enough to compensate for the dreadful risk of this work — not even the implicit promise that the side you work for will take care of you will tip the scale if you have to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. However, a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement. If that’s no longer the case, this raises the stakes for spies — and makes swaps pointless.

Having resumed the Cold War-era practice of swaps, why would Putin or his spy chiefs want to ruin it by approving the assassination of a former spy who had served part of his sentence in a Russian jail and was then put out to pasture in the UK? One answer could be that Skripal perhaps continued working for British intelligence after he was traded.

However, as the Russian government cannot admit anything now without setting off a major confrontation with the UK, we will never likely know if this is what happened — and because of this, the unwritten rules of spy swaps have still been put in doubt as far as Western intelligence services are concerned.

Then there is the matter of Skripal’s daughter, Yulia. It was never Soviet or Russian practice to attack traitors’ relatives. Even the 1938 case of Leon Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, is not a clear-cut assassination. Nor is there a single known case of “collateral damage” to families. The Soviet and Russian approach to retribution was always pragmatic rather than vendetta-like. All of that amounts to a good reason to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom, until there are real facts to support it.

That will not stop seasoned analysts from drawing preliminary conclusions.

Mark Galeotti, senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, who has studied the Russian intelligence community, wrote of “a breakdown in the old etiquette of espionage.”

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