By Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry
Sergei V. Skripal was a little fish.
This is how British officials now describe Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer they recruited as a spy in the mid-1990s. When the Russians caught Skripal, they saw him that way, too, granting him a reduced sentence. So did the Americans: The intelligence chief who orchestrated his release to the West in 2010 had never heard of him when he was included in a spy swap with Moscow.
But Skripal was significant in the eyes of one man — Vladimir Putin, an intelligence officer of the same age and training.
The two men had dedicated their lives to an intelligence war between the Soviet Union and the West. When that war was suspended, both struggled to adapt.
One rose, and one fell. While Skripal was trying to reinvent himself, Putin and his allies, former intelligence officers, were gathering together the strands of the old Soviet system. Gaining power, Putin began settling scores, reserving special hatred for those who had betrayed the intelligence tribe when it was most vulnerable.
Six months ago, Skripal was found beside his daughter, Yulia, slumped on a bench in an English city, hallucinating and foaming at the mouth. His poisoning led to a Cold War-style confrontation between Russia and the West, with both sides expelling diplomats and wrangling over who tried to kill him and why.
On Wednesday, British officials offered specifics, accusing Russia of sending two hit men to smear Skripal’s front door handle with a nerve agent, an accusation vigorously denied by Moscow. British intelligence chiefs claim they have identified the men as members of the same Russian military intelligence unit, the GRU, or Main Intelligence Directorate, where Skripal once worked.
It is unclear if Putin played a role in the poisoning of Skripal, who survived and has gone into hiding. But dozens of interviews conducted in Britain, Russia, Spain, Estonia, the United States and the Czech Republic, as well as a review of Russian court documents, show how their lives intersected at key moments.
In the late 1990s, Sergei Skripal returned from Madrid, where he was posted undercover in the office of the Russian military attaché. Russia was in disarray. Coal miners, soldiers and doctors had not been paid in months. Workers took control of a St. Petersburg nuclear power plant, threatening to shut it down unless they received their back pay.
Skripal was good fun, though, happy in the company of other men. Oleg B. Ivanov, who worked with him in the Moscow regional governor’s office, recalled him as a man struggling to keep up with changes in the country. He lived in a shabby housing block in a field of identical housing blocks and drove a rattletrap Niva.
One thing didn’t fit: At restaurants, he insisted on paying for everyone. “That was something that set him apart,” Ivanov said. “I don’t know where this came from.” In their crowd there were many other former Soviet spies, who had devoted the first part of their life to qualifying as intelligence officers. Now it all seemed pointless.
“You have to understand, the Soviet Union collapsed,” Ivanov said. “All the Soviet ideology that underpinned our government also disappeared into history. There was a slogan at that time: Enrich yourselves.”
That was Skripal’s story, he said: always looking for side hustles. “He simply loved money.”
And that, he said, explained his friend’s betrayal. In 2006, Ivanov heard Skripal’s name on the news. Prosecutors said that, while posted in Spain, Skripal had entered into a business partnership with a Spanish intelligence agent, who “bumped” him to a recruiter from Britain’s foreign intelligence service. Skripal had been meeting his handler secretly since 1996, they said, passing on secrets in exchange for $100,000.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 15 years, five less than the maximum, and the judge reduced it to 13, because Skripal was cooperative.
‘Moscow Is Silent’
Vladimir Putin, another midcareer intelligence officer, was living through the same loss of status.
In 1990, he was sent home early from his post at KGB headquarters in Dresden. His salary had not been paid in three months and he had nowhere to live.
The unraveling had felt personal for Putin, who was unable to protect all his German contacts from exposure. One day Putin pleaded with the Soviet military command to defend the KGB headquarters, which was surrounded by German protesters eager to seize files.
“Moscow is silent,” an officer told him.
Scores of intelligence agents turned to the West at that time, as defectors or informants, and Putin cannot speak of them without disgust. They are “beasts” and “swine.” Treachery, he told one interviewer, is the one sin he is incapable of forgiving. It could also, he said darkly, be bad for your health. “Traitors always meet a bad end,” he once said.
When he came to power, Putin went after traitors the same way he dealt with other ills of the chaotic 1990s, the oligarchs and crime bosses. His first years in office were marked by a barrage of spy convictions, some clearly meant as revenge.
A Trade Is Proposed
Dialing the number of his Russian counterpart from his office in Langley, Virginia, Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was not optimistic.
Panetta had once met Mikhail Fradkov, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service. They had dined together in Washington, and as the meal was wrapping up Panetta asked his companion what he thought was Russia’s biggest intelligence failure. America’s, he volunteered, was the case for invading Iraq.
Fradkov paused for a long time, then responded simply, “Penkovsky.”
Panetta was taken aback; the answer spoke volumes about the way the Russian system viewed moles. Oleg Penkovsky was a colonel in the GRU who had spied for the CIA and British intelligence during the 1950s and 1960s. He was apprehended by Soviet authorities and, it is believed, shot.
Now it was the summer of 2010, and Panetta was on the phone with Fradkov, hoping to set in motion a deal that would free another GRU mole. Days earlier, the FBI had arrested 10 Russian sleeper agents, who had been operating in the United States for nearly a decade.
“These people are yours,” Panetta said he told Fradkov.
“I said, ‘Look, we’re going to prosecute them; it could be very embarrassing for you,’” Panetta recalled saying in an interview. “You’ve got three or four people who we want, and I propose that we make a trade.”
On a hot July day, guards at Correctional Colony No. 5 in the Russian Republic of Mordovia came to Skripal’s cell and told him to gather his things. He was taken to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where he met briefly with his family before being loaded onto a small plane. With him were three other former prisoners.
‘Have to Hide Their Whole Lives’
One man, however, was stewing.
“A person gives over his whole life for his homeland and then some bastard comes along and betrays such people,” Putin, practically snarling, said when asked to comment about the swap on live television. “How will he be able to look into the eyes of his children, the pig. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them. Believe me.”
Even if they did not die, he added, they would suffer. “They will have to hide their whole lives,” Putin said. “With no ability to speak with other people, with their loved ones.” Then he stiffened his back, squared his shoulders and spoke straight to the camera.
“You know,” he concluded, “a person who chooses this fate will regret it a thousand times.”
Lonely in Exile
It was hard to miss Skripal in Salisbury. Matthew Dean, head of Salisbury’s City Council, recalled spotting him one day at a modest establishment with electronic poker machines and framed prints of racehorses. Dean is a pub owner, familiar with Salisbury’s categories of drinkers. This one did not belong.
“It was a Sunday afternoon, and he was drinking neat vodka,” Dean recalled. “He was extremely loud, and he was wearing a white track suit. I remember saying, ‘Good God, who is this person?’”
Skripal tiptoed around the question of his past, at least at the beginning.
“He missed Russia,” said Ross Cassidy, a burly former submariner who became one of his closest friends. Lisa Carey, another neighbor, observed the Russian on his daily rounds, walking to the Bargain Stop in his tracksuit to buy scratch tickets.
“He used to boast about being a spy, and we would all laugh at him,” she said. “We thought he was mental.”
He did have secrets, though. Skripal traveled regularly on classified assignments organized by MI6, offering briefings on the GRU to European and U.S. intelligence services. Such assignments may be devised as a way to keep a former spy busy, said Nigel West, a British intelligence historian. It is not unusual, he said, for defectors to feel bored and underappreciated, something he called “post-usefulness syndrome.”
“Case officers are very aware of it,” West said. “When the time comes, and they say ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you,’ you may well say, ‘I’ve got something very interesting to do.’ That’s what tends to happen. Their status has been slightly exaggerated and enhanced, and they start swallowing their own bathwater.”
Two Trips From Moscow
Yulia Skripal had something important to do in England.
She had sold her father’s old apartment, together with the old furniture and the double-headed eagle, the symbol of Russia, that he hung on the wall. She bought herself a small place in western Moscow. But recently she had cleared out to make way for workers to start renovations.
The key change was a tiny room Yulia wanted redecorated so it could be used as a nursery, according to Diana Petik, whom Yulia Skripal hired to oversee the renovations. Yulia, she said, was planning to marry her long-term boyfriend and become a mother.
But there was one thing she felt she had to do first. Sergei Skripal could not safely travel to Russia for the wedding, so she wanted to at least have his blessing. This was her intention, Petik said, when she boarded an Aeroflot flight bound for London on March 3.
A day earlier, according to British authorities, two Russian intelligence officers arrived in London aboard a different Aeroflot flight.
In one of their bags was a specially made bottle, disguised as a vial of perfume, loaded with a military grade nerve agent.
As Yulia Skripal went through customs at Heathrow Airport and waited for her luggage, the two men, according to British investigators, were in Salisbury, carrying out surveillance before the attack.
The next afternoon, shortly after 4 p.m., a woman named Freya Church was leaving her job when she came across two figures slumped on a bench in the center of Salisbury. The woman was leaning against the man. The man was gazing up at the sky, making strange, jerky movements with his hands, she told the BBC.
By that time the two men were boarding a train at Salisbury station, the first leg of their escape back to Moscow.
News of the crime would begin to ripple outward, through the intelligence services of a dozen countries, through the U.N. Security Council and the global body tasked with banning the use of chemical weapons. For the agencies that oversee the army of spies that remained behind after the Cold War, it would throw into question every understood rule of engagement.
But for now, it was a finished job. A middle-aged GRU officer facing an uncertain future had betrayed his tribe. In accordance with rules well known by everyone in Russia’s intelligence services, two assassins came to England and took care of a little fish.