Ben Macintyre, author of SAS: Rogue Heroes, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, and Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, and other fine books on special operations and espionage, offers his take on former Russian spy and defector Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in the UK, in his London Times column.
Drinker, traitor, soldier, spy. Agent, double agent, convict, intelligence asset and assassination target. Veteran of the Russian spy service, then its sworn enemy and now, in all probability, its victim.
Barely a week ago only a small handful of people inside the intelligence community knew the real story of Sergei Skripal, the spy who lies, mortally ill from poisoning along with his daughter, in a Salisbury hospital. Yet in a few short days he has become the most famous spy in the world, a man whose multiple lives are the subject of a huge police investigation into who he is, who he was and who tried to kill him.
Sergei Viktorovich Skripal was a child of the Cold War, born in Kiev on June 23, 1951, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Physically strong and intensely patriotic, he chose a military career; long after becoming an intelligence officer he retained the manners and bearing of a military officer.
… In 1979 Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. Skripal was parachuted into Afghanistan and saw some fierce fighting under the command of Boris Gromov, commander of the 40th Army. General Gromov, one of Russia’s most highly decorated officers and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, would play a key role in Skripal’s later life as a friend and patron.
A champion army boxer with a broken nose and burly physique, Skripal looked like a military bruiser, but his appearance disguised a sharp mind. While still in the airborne division, Skripal was headhunted by the GRU (Glavnoye razvedyvatel’noye upravleniye, meaning Main Intelligence Directorate), the foreign military intelligence service.
The GRU was and remains one of the most powerful institutions in Russia, deploying six times as many agents in foreign countries as the SVR, the successor to the KGB. The GRU controls more than 25,000 Spetznaz special forces troops, gathers and analyses information from Russian space satellites and answers directly to Russia’s chief of the general staff, one of three people controlling Russia’s portable nuclear control.
GRU officers are active around the world, usually operating under diplomatic cover to gather military secrets, run agents and obtain by fair means or foul anything and everything of use to the Russian military machine.
Skripal rose rapidly up the ranks and in the early 1990s was deployed to Malta as a GRU officer, where he showed himself to be “an energetic professional, capable of conducting complex recruitment of agents and extracting important information”, according to Russian media. In 1993 he was transferred to Spain, as the senior GRU officer in the office of the Russian military attaché.
His potential as a recruit to western intelligence was spotted by the CNI, the Spanish intelligence service. The Yeltsin years were lean ones for Russians serving abroad; salaries were often paid late, or not at all. Skripal was registered by the CNI as someone with “a nose for money”. He was approached by what is known in spy jargon as an “access agent”, a man calling himself “Luis” who suggested they co-operate on a business venture, selling Spanish wine. Skripal was promised large commissions in exchange for identifying possible business partners in Russia.
You can read the rest of the column via the below link:
You can also read my Crime Beat interview with Ben Macinytre via the below link: