- - Sunday, October 21, 2018


By Mark Urban

Henry Holt and Company, $30, 310 pages

Speaking to reporters in December 2010, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that his spy agencies had assassination squads that targeted defectors. But he voiced an ominous warning. “Whatever thirty pieces of silver those people may have gotten, they will stick in their throat.”

Despite his shortcomings as a decent human, give Mr. Putin credit: He carries out his threats. Any person unfortunate enough to cross him is a step removed from the grave.

The civilized world was shocked in March when a defected Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were stricken with a mysterious poison in the quiet British town of Salisbury. They were in critical condition for weeks but survived. Scientific tests identified the poison involved as Novichok, developed by Russia for germ warfare. It had been smeared on the door knob of the Skripal home.

The attack matched earlier Russian murder operations, notably the poisoning death of defector Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

Mr. Skripal, a onetime Red Army airborne colonel, had shifted to the GRU, the military’s intelligence arm. Disillusioned with the Communist regime, he tried to resign, but was refused. (As Mr. Putin himself once said, “There is no such thing as an ex-KGB man.”

Assigned to Spain, Mr. Skripal contacted an officer of MI6, the British spy agency. As a defector-in-place, he gave MI6 intricate details of GRU world-wide operations.

Eventually his association with MI6 was revealed to the Soviets by a Spanish turncoat, one Roberto Flores. But Flores had scant solid evidence of his spying, thus Mr. Skripal was not summarily executed. Instead, after a sham trial in 2006, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

What saved Mr. Skripal from execution? Another Russian, Yuri Burlatov, a naval officer, had also been arrested in Spain. Under interrogation, in an apparent attempt at a bargain, he named high officers of the FSB (successor to the KGB) as siphoning off funds from a Russian “technological shopping spree.”

Burlatov charged that officers in the GRU Madrid headquarters were creating false invoices, with the pilfered stolen proceeds being shared up the line of command.

The official ultimately responsible for the corruption was Gen. Nikolai Patrushev, the FSB director and a close ally of Vladimir Putin. (He is now general secretary of the Russian security council.)

Burlatov’s bargaining failed. He was found dead, a claimed “suicide” by self-strangulation. That several of his fingers had been cut off suggested otherwise. The death was a grisly warning of the dangers of offending Mr. Putin’s inner circle.

Mr. Skripal has resigned himself to dying in prison. Then, in 2006, a stroke of luck. An FBI counterintelligence operation broke a ring of deep-cover Russian agents, including couples living in Washington, New York and Boston. Posing as American citizens, their mission was to build careers in banking, government and other institutions. The FBI busted the scheme before they succeeded.

In a spy swap, Mr. Skripal was one of the prisoners the Soviets picked for release. He chose to live in England, and MI6 settled him and his daughter in Salisbury.

Several other resettled spies had spoken out publicly against Mr. Putin and his plutocrat cronies. Such criticism was widely cited as the reason Litvinenko was murdered. Mr. Skripal’s earlier silence on the GRU corruption was apparently taken as a sign that he would not be a whistle-blower.

And indeed Mr. Skripal initially remained silent, with he and his daughter blending in with neighbors. Nonetheless, MI6 permitted him to have long interviews with Mark Urban, longtime national security correspondent for BBC, and the author of 11 earlier books on military and intelligence.

Mr. Urban’s plan was for a book on intelligence during the Cold War. Mr. Skripal happily recounted in detail his work for the GRU, and he also revealed several bombshells, including a short-lived military plot to assassinate Mr. Putin. He also told Mr. Urban about the corruption in the FSB high command.

Did the Russians become aware of the tell-all nature of Mr. Skripal’s interviews? Mr. Urban does not address that question in his book.

Given Russia’s past reputation for tracking down and killing talkative defectors, the British government early on accused Moscow of ordering the poison attacks — denied, of course, by Mr. Putin. The British had street videos of the perpetrators but no proof of their identity.

Nonetheless, Britain and allies (including the United States) expelled some 160 Soviet spies from embassies, which Mr. Urban terms “a global action larger than any other Cold War move against Soviet or Russian espionage networks.”

But Mr. Urban’s book benefited from an appropriate sequel. The week it was published in London, a fledgling investigative website named BellingCat.com used the street surveillance videos to identify two Russian intelligence officers. One listed a Moscow home address that is the same as the GRU headquarters.

The named Russian would-be assassins claimed innocence, saying they visited Salisbury to admire a Gothic cathedral. Believe them if you wish: The evidence seems otherwise.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military affairs.

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