Yuri Shvets is a former agent and classmate of Putin at the KGB who emigrated to the US more than 20 years ago. He told The Insider about why it was the Russians who poisoned Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal, what might have been the reason for the assassination attempt and what evidence there is that the order to kill the former Russian military intelligence colonel was given personally by Putin.
In order to understand what happened in the UK, we first have to understand what happens in Russia.
Putin holds on to his power primarily with the help of his intelligence agencies, and the Russian intelligence services are truly unique. The group that now rules Russia are referred to as agents of the now defunct KGB. But they are not ordinary KGB agents – they are “provincial” KGB agents. That is, they worked at the Leningrad’s provincial KGB division.
These people have never really engaged in counterintelligence or intelligence. The only operational experience that Putin and his comrades have came in the 1990s, during St. Petersburg’s gang wars. Hence, Putin’s modus operandi is more entwined with his criminal, gangster experience than the KGB per se.
This has had a considerable impact on all of the Russian intelligence agencies, especially [the KGB's successor] the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin does not like the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) – he was not recruited into intelligence at the time, so all of the power in the intelligence services is now held by the FSB.
The FSB is not a classic intelligence or counterintelligence agency – it is a corporation that makes money using resources and methods honed by Russian organised crime, a merger that occurred around 1997/98.
These are people who are engaged in racketeering and aggressive appropriations of other people’s property. Through their agents, they illegally trade weapons and organise prostitution. And the latest thing is the drug trade, which everyone knows about.
These people have a very hazy idea of intelligence and counterintelligence. This is no coincidence: when you are managing hundreds of millions and billions, you don’t have time for anything else.
I understood that the Soviet Union was coming to an end around 1989, when the head of the KGB instructed his subordinate to line up some business. We, like the intelligence agencies, were forced to set up joint ventures with other countries. You arrive in the morning and the boss says: so, how is our joint venture with the Koreans going? After dinner, you get a call: so, how is our joint venture with the Americans going? We forgot about intelligence and counterintelligence, and national security too. Then it was just a matter of small change, but now, billions – these people aren’t involved in intelligence or counterintelligence.
As for what the FSB is doing now, just last week Putin announced that the valiant FSB had uncovered 397 enemy agents in Russia over the course of 2017. I want people to understand what this figure really means. In the mid-1980s, the KGB’s foreign intelligence division recruited two people (one the CIA's Aldrich Ames; the other the FBI's Bob Hanssen). They handed over the complete list of American agents who had been recruited in the Soviet Union since the 1970s.
It showed that between the 1970s and 1980s, over 20 years, only 15 people were recruited. In the 1970s, the KGB reported annual recruitment of between one and three foreign agents per year to the Politburo. It was the Cold War, when the CIA was an incredibly strong organisation and the people who were working there were focused on the Soviet Union – they put everything they had into achieving victory.
So now, when we are told that officials have uncovered 397 agents in one year, it means that the organisation, or rather its leaders, do not understand at all what agents are and what they do. They are forging cash, trading drugs, and at the end of the year they say: “Our boss in the Kremlin hasn't got a clue; how many did we give him last year? 390? Well, let’s give him 397”, – and boom, that’s it, everyone’s reporting it. This is how the intelligence services operate in Russia. And this shaped what happened in London.
Why poison Skripal?
The rules of the game in Russian intelligence services are these: before doing anything risky (a murder on foreign territory using weapons of mass destruction certainly qualifies), cover all bases. And this can only be done by having it sanctioned by the country’s leaders.
So, what do we have? Just like Litvinenko’s murder, the attempt on Skripal was clumsy. The first thing, paradoxically, is the worst of all: a minimum of three planes, part of London, and Hamburg were contaminated – it was a nightmare. We still haven’t yet found out who brought this substance to Skripal, but, I think that the English will get to the bottom of this.
The essential question is perhaps: why did intelligence services decide to get rid of Skripal? There may be several reasons. Money may be involved, and in this vein I would heed the message that briefly appeared in the British press – that Skripal was linked to Russian businessman and whistle-blower Alexander Perepilichny. Another possible explanation is that Putin has adopted the North Korean model – rock the boat and ramp up tensions to the highest level to then sit down and invite the West to negotiate.
Theresa May put forward two ideas as to what happened in London in her ultimatum. First, the Russian state, through its intelligence agencies, used a means of mass destruction to make a strike on the United Kingdom itself. Second, the Russian intelligence services lost control of the substance, with some of the poison falling into somebody else’s hands.
I can virtually rule out the second option, because Russia’s leaders are historically paranoid about their own lives and security, so all substances are kept under the strictest of control. When I worked in intelligence and was involved in operations, I had to maintain contact with the organisation that develops chemicals. They didn’t just work on poisons, but drugs too.
All correspondence with this KGB Operational and Technical Unit was marked as being of special importance. This unit's operations were under the strictest of controls, because who knows, one day you’re poisoning somebody in London and the next day you’re being poisoned yourself. So, the version of events whereby somebody made a “stash” of the poison can almost be ruled out.
How did British intelligence cope?
We should touch on the work of the British intelligence services, who failed to prevent the poisoning. Preventive work should in theory take place, but, in practice, doesn’t happen in any country. Consider the FBI again. They do virtually nothing preventively, but after the event, they do a good job of solving the crime, and the same is true of MI5.
Imagine that somebody comes into the country carrying a particular powder and wants to conceal it somewhere. MI5 cannot sit waiting behind every tree or in every apartment building. You might learn about an operation from foreign intelligence agents, but this is not at all straightforward, because very few Russians even will have known about the operation. But my feeling is that the British will solve this case, because after numerous terrorist attacks they have CCTV cameras everywhere, which will help to uncover the objective facts of the crime.
The British government is now reaping the fruits of the biggest mistake that it made after Litvinenko’s murder. Then, it had a choice – to react, in essence, to a terrorist attack in the centre of London or to target cash – meaning, Russian money in the UK. London chose the cash.
Theresa May’s great predecessor Winston Churchill once said: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war”. This is what happened with the British government. I’m sure that Theresa May has recognised the mistake. I am a lawyer by training: from the perspective of criminal law or criminology, the best way to prevent a future crime is to make punishment inevitable.