Novichok attack sheds light on Putin’s feared military agency

Novichok attack sheds light on Putin’s feared military agency
On the face of it, a reckless operation that left a trail of CCTV images and a discarded perfume bottle enabled police to link the Russian spies known as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov to the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal.

“This was more Johnny English than James Bond,” declared the UK’s security minister Ben Wallace, a reference to the incompetent fictional MI6 agent played by comedian Rowan Atkinson.

But whether the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury was a botched job, rather than intentionally blatant, is an open question.

The UK has blamed the operation on the GRU, a much-feared Russian military intelligence agency not usually associated with failure.

“A worrying and problematic new narrative is emerging that Russia’s GRU are somehow a bunch of bunglers,” said Mark Galeotti, a political analyst of Russia. “This is inaccurate and misses the point. The GRU ethos is about taking chances to not miss opportunities, even if they won’t always succeed.”

Officially known in Moscow as the Main Directorate, the GRU was formed in 1918 as the armed forces’ intelligence wing to compete with what became the domestic KGB security service. It is considered the country’s most secretive and effective intelligence agency.

GRU operatives were involved in the seizure of Prague airport in 1968 as part of the Soviet invasion to stop Czechoslovakia’s liberalisation movement, and the 1979 assassination of Afghan president Hafizullah Amin, which triggered the Soviet-Afghan war.

In recent years it played a pivotal role in the annexation of Crimea by seizing vital installations, and provides support to rebel combatant groups loyal to Moscow in the east of Ukraine. But publicity and recognition are not the agency’s aims.

Run from a dull grey office complex behind a shopping mall in Moscow’s suburbs that contrasts with the imposing KGB — now FSB — headquarters that dominates the central Lubyanka Square, the GRU is today considered the country’s most shadowy and reliable intelligence outfit.

Its budget, headcount and operational structure are all state secrets. A visit by President Vladimir Putin to its new headquarters in 2006 provided some of the only publicly available photographs of the building’s interior.

“This was the Soviet intelligence diamond that was largely preserved and kept functional,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

“In short the GRU is the crème de la crème of Russia’s armed forces.”

Rather than recruiting brilliant but untested young university graduates, the GRU typically selects more experienced, mature and battle-hardened operatives from Russia’s armed forces for its ranks.

“They are very closed, very secretive. There are lots of cool stories on Russian TV about how the KGB or the FSB saved the world, but nothing about the GRU. They were designed to be under the radar and like it that way,” said an official close to Russia’s armed forces.

The agency’s proclivity for secrecy has been threatened over the past few years by a series of western accusations of the GRU’s involvement in foreign operations, ranging from the Crimea annexation to the cyber attacks on the 2016 US election, which led to US sanctions against its leader, Colonel General Igor Korobov, a former Soviet air force officer.

“The top brass would be extremely nervous about domestically sourced revelations regarding the workings of the GRU, but I think they will see [the Skripal] claims made by western countries, western media as just part of the game,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The evidence presented by the Metropolitan Police’s counter terror unit on Wednesday suggested two conflicting themes: that the operation carried out by Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov was efficient and well planned, but that elementary failures led to its discovery.

The men travelled under fake names using official Russian passports. Analysts added that to successfully obtain UK visas they would have had to create plausible back stories — known in the trade as “legends” — that would have followed months of careful research.

Police say the specially adapted perfume bottle, which UK authorities say was used to spray the deadly nerve agent novichok on the door of Mr Skripal’s home, was further evidence of the attackers’ sophisticated tradecraft.

Detractors point to the survival and eventual recovery of the former Russian spy and his daughter as proof that the job ultimately failed. But even this is open to doubt, since it rests on the assumption that the hit was a “wet job” — to use the Cold War term for a state-sponsored assassination.

“I know people are saying it looks amateur because they didn’t kill Skripal,” said Professor Anthony Glees, from the University of Buckingham, who highlights Salisbury’s proximity to British army headquarters and other vital UK military installations. “But killing Skripal may not have been the most important thing here. It may have been to show that Russia could strike at the heart of the British military establishment with impunity.”

The theory is supported by the careless way in which Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov allegedly disposed of the perfume bottle containing the nerve agent, which eventually led to the inadvertent death of Dawn Sturgess and the contamination of her partner Charlie Rowley in July.

“They don’t care about collateral damage,” said Robert Hannigan, a former director of the UK’s communications intelligence agency GCHQ. “The threshold for risk in Russia is completely different to ours.”