- - Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In Ian Fleming’s 1957 thriller “From Russia With Love,” his finest novel in my view, a psychopath assassin named Donovan “Red” Grant is sent by Soviet intelligence to the West to kill British operative James Bond.

The late Mr. Fleming, a naval intelligence officer during WWII and a journalist who covered espionage cases both before and after the war, acknowledged that his thriller plots were fantastic, but yet, he added, that they were often based on the real world of intelligence. He said that on occasion a news story would “lift a corner of the veil” and reveal the real world of spies, assassins and commandos.

For example, Mr. Fleming noted the case of Russian assassin Capt. Nikoly Khokhlov, who was ordered to murder a Russian dissident in Germany in 1954. Khokhlov was equipped with an electrically operated gun fitted with a silencer and concealed in a gold cigarette case. The gun fired bullets tipped in cyanide, which were designed to lead a pathologist to rule the cause of death to be heart failure.

While today the United Kingdom, the U.S. and other Western nations condemn Russia for the attempted murder of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, the brazen poisoning and attempted murder of him and his daughter in the United Kingdom was by no means the first of its kind.

The Russians in the bad old days of the Soviet Union sent forth a good number of assassins to the West to murder Soviet “enemies of the state.” The Russian government under Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, appears to be carrying on the old tradition.

“It has long been known that the Soviet state security service (currently the KGB) resorts to abduction and murder to combat what are considered to be actual or potential threats to the Soviet regime,” stated a 1964 CIA report that was declassified in 1993.

“These techniques, frequently designated as ‘executive action’ and known within the KGB as ‘liquid affairs’ (Mokryye Dela), can be and are employed abroad as well as within the borders of the USSR. They have been used against Soviet citizens, Soviet emigres, and even foreign nationals. A list of those who have fallen victim to such action over the years would be a very long one and would include even the co-founder of the Soviet state, Leon Trotsky. Several well-known Soviet assassination operations which have occurred since the rise of Khrushchev attest to the fact that the present leadership of the USSR still employs this method of dealing with its enemies.”

The CIA report stated that the large numbers of former Soviet citizens, as well as Imperial Russia, living abroad who protested against the Soviet regime have been at risk since the early 1920s.

The CIA report said that reducing the potential threat to the Soviet regime represented by these emigres was one of the functions of the state security service. Soviet intelligence sought to neutralize, discredit and destroy anti-Soviet groups by luring emigres back to the USSR, by penetrating emigre organizations, and by kidnapping or murdering individual emigres considered to be particularly dangerous.

In the 1954 Khokhlov case, he decided not to go forward with the Soviet-planned assassination and instead he defected to the West. Later, Khokhlov himself was the target of assassination. According to the CIA report, the former assassin suffered a sudden and severe illness while attending an anti-Communist meeting in Germany in 1957.

“Khokhlov himself believed, and allegedly had supporting medical opinion, that he had been poisoned by radio-activated thallium,” the CIA report stated. “He believed that the poison was of Russian origin because it was such a complicated substance that it was difficult to analyze and had been carefully prepared to leave virtually no trace. A unique mechanism for administering poison was described by a knowledgeable source as a pneumatically operated poison ice ‘atomizer’ which leaves no wound or other evidence of the cause of death.”

In 1978 Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident working for the BBC, felt a pain in the back of his leg as he walked across the Waterloo Bridge in London. A man had come up behind him and poked him with the tip of his umbrella. The umbrella fired a pellet filled with the poison ricin into the back of the Bulgarian’s leg. Georgi Markov later died.

In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer and vocal Putin critic, died in London after drinking a cup of tea. The tea was discovered to be laced with radioactive polonium-210.

Are these types of assassinations preventable?

Enhanced counterintelligence operations at home and enhanced intelligence of Russia, both human and electronic, can help thwart assassination attempts in the future. Economic sanctions and other overt actions can work toward discouraging President Putin from sending his hit men to the West.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism

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