Sergei Skripal – was it an assassination?

by Philip Ingram MBE

Updated 08 Mar

‪As someone who commanded an intelligence unit with a capability for the covert surveillance of Russian intelligence operations, I think I am qualified to do some analysis of detail that is coming out from the reporting of the Sergei Skripal incident. ‬

I will open this with a caveat, I am analysing press reporting which is already speculation heavy but there are enough ‘pointers’ to allow me to bring some informed comment to be brought out.  The detail is likely to change, especially regarding the potential attack vector, however, the analysis should remain sound.

The two questions an intelligence analyst asks about any incident are; does the capability exist and is there an intent to use the capability? Often one exists without the other, the threat is therefore considered low. Where the two exist, the threat is considered credible.

The Russians have the capability to carry out remote assassinations overseas and within the UK using sophisticated ‘poisons’ and they are not fixed on one agent. Georgi Markov was assassinated in London in 1978 by a Soviet-trained Bulgarian secret service agent using ricin, a highly toxic, naturally occurring compound, it was embedded in a pellet fired from an umbrella. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko an ex-KGB officer died after drinking green tea laced with polonium-210, a rare and potent radioactive isotope, again in London.

The symptoms reported in the Daily Mail and elsewhere are consistent with poisoning by an organophosphate-based nerve agent of which SARIN or GB has hit the press recently with its use in Syria by Russian backed Syrian forces. Last year the North Korean leaders’ half-brother Kim Jong-Nam was assassinated in Kuala Lumper Airport in Malaysia by another organophosphate-based nerve agent VX which is an abbreviation for “venomous agent X.” The Russians have access to very sophisticated nerve agents including GB and VX, that act within seconds. VX or a derivative would be a referred agent as it is less volatile and it being more potent than Sarin, it can have fatal effects in smaller doses absorbed through the skin.

Of course, there are many other similar compounds in the organophosphate and carbamate groups that can cause these symptoms.  And with no confirmation of agent at the moment, the suggestion it could be novel or bespoke will remain.  Caveating my comments that VX is possible and has been used before, scientists could have developed some other mycotoxin specifically for this type of assassination attempt. An issue is at least one of the first responders didn’t show symptoms till the next morning which is unusual for a nerve agent contamination but may not be immediately related.

Now the government have confirmed that a nerve agent was used it is worth having a look at some of the derivatives of the G series and V series that have been developed.  I studied these as part of my first and masters degree courses, completing specialist projects on CBRNE threats, so again, I think I am qualified to do some analysis.

Nerve agents are compounds that have the capacity to inactivate the enzyme acetylcholinesterase which is there to ‘turn off’ a trigger signal in a nerve caused by acetylcholine.  If you cant turn it off the nerve keeps firing.  Some of the first agents to be developed were developed by the Nazi’s just before and during the second world war and were given the designator ‘G’ for German. The 3 most common are tabun (GA), sarin (GB), and soman (GD). The man credited with their development was Dr Gerhard Schrader who had been working on pesticides when he realised the power of what he had developed.

It was the British in1954 who first synthesized O-ethyl S-(2-diisopropylaminoethyl) methylphosphonothioate, the scientific name for what the Americans designated VX.  The ‘V’ agents are at least 10 times more toxic than the most common ‘G’ agent, sarin (GB).  One of the characteristics of the ‘V’ agents is that they were much less volatile than the ‘G’ agents and were therefore considered persistent agents, able to contaminate an area or individual for longer and not reliant on inhalation as much, their persistence and toxicity made skin absorption a significant exposure threat. There are other ‘V’ agents but much of the detail about them remains classified and they have code names like VE, V-gas, VG, and VM.  Of note, V-gas is the Russian equivalent of VX and with VE, VG and VM are much rarer but act in a similar way.  The world of chemical agents and especially nerve agents and mycotoxins is a complex, fascinating and frightening one, the rarer the agent used the easier it is to apportion blame once the substance has been identified as there are very few facilities across the globe with the sophisticated laboratories able to create and test new agents.

The Russians have the intent – Putin’s clear statements about what he thinks of those caught spying in a video that emerged in 2010 where he said, “Traitors will kick the bucket. trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them,” is a clear enough statement of intent. In addition, the Russian history of similar assassinations and the clear message it sends to those who may try to undermine Putin’s power base.  From a personal perspective, Putin will likely see Sergei Skripal as a traitor no matter what.

What is slightly more frightening is it also sends a message to the international community and to the UK in particular that the Russians are willing to operate with impunity across the globe. This is consistent with their military actions in Syria and their increased military presence globally as well as statements regarding new nuclear capabilities and pictures of new conventional weapon systems.

When in October 2017, Robert Hannigan, the former head of GCHQ, described Russia’s use of cyber-attacks as “a new way” of waging war against the country’s enemies he forgot his readings of Sun Tzu the 6th century Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, arguably the greatest military tactician and strategic thinker ever, said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception.” He also clearly forgot the Russian doctrine of маскировка (maskirovka) defined in the International Dictionary of Intelligence from 1990 as the Russian military intelligence (GRU) term for deception. Vladimir Putin would have “grown up” in an organisation where maskirovka was a normal part of everyday thinking and is part of their aggressive information operations doctrine.

The frightening analysis of Hannagan’s statement is that the UK intelligence services have taken their eye off the Russian threat. Resources monitoring it have been reallocated to the counter-terror threat whilst the Russians and other intelligence agencies have kept their numbers and activities at the same or greater levels in the Cold War. The UK has become an open playground for unmonitored espionage.

Putting all of this together, it is highly probable that this was a sanctioned assassination with a motivation to send a message to some of Putin’s opposition in the run-up to the Presidential Election and show ‘strength’ to his domestic audience as well as settle a score!  Of course, it won’t be obvious that it was definitely Putin sanctioned as it is not unusual for Russian agencies to use plausibly deniable outlets for their “dirty work”.  The BBC Series Mc Mafia had more than an element of truth running through its drama. The pictures of the extremely professional emergency services response show how credible the threat was and how all precautions were being taken.  The fact that the investigation was quickly handed over from Wiltshire Constabulary to the MET suggests that the national implications were recognised quickly.  I would assess that the agent used was a thickened version of one of the ‘V” group, possibly thickened V-gas but this is not based on any hard evidence.

Detailed analysis by DSTL Porton Down will be able to identify the cause and recommend the most appropriate medical treatments for Sergei Skripal‬ and his daughter, as well as the others, affected as there can be long-term effects. Their luckiest break is that it happened only a short distance from Porton Down, one of the world’s leading chemical defence research centres.  It is probable that whoever is ultimately responsible for this attack, they will have created a lot of false trails to generate an air of plausible deniability to act as a smokescreen.  However, the authorities will know the culprits with some certainty.

Note: This blog will be updated as new information is received.  The current version was updated at 2000 on 8th March 2018 – if you would like any further comment from Philip, please contact him by clicking HERE