Six months after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent in the United Kingdom, details about the suspected killers are finally coming out. According to British prosecutors, the two men named as suspects belonged to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, which is the very agency Skripal worked for when he was a British spy. On the one hand, these alleged ties attest to the GRU’s aggressive agenda—something of which governments in the West should be wary. On the other hand, an excessive focus on this service, as well as an emerging narrative about its supposed clumsiness, is dangerous.
Details about the possible assassins started to come out on Sept. 5, when Neil Basu, the assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, named two Russians traveling under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov as the chief suspects. A massive investigation, in which some 250 detectives took more than 1,400 statements and scoured 11,000 hours of surveillance footage, had allowed the police to track the two men over a three-day stay in the United Kingdom. Police say they arrived on a flight from Moscow on the afternoon of Friday, March 2. The next day, they stayed at a London hotel, where they allegedly prepared the nerve agent, Novichok, used in the attack. And on Sunday, police say they traveled to Skripal’s residence in the city of Salisbury. An hour and a half after arriving, having anointed the door handle of his house with Novichok and discarded the fake perfume bottle in which it was being carried in a nearby park, the suspects were on a train back to the airport and on to Moscow.
Speaking in Parliament after the commissioner’s briefing, Prime Minister Theresa May said that the two men were GRU operatives, which she described as a “highly disciplined organization with a well-established chain of command.” Although she refrained from mentioning Russian President Vladimir Putin by name, the implication that he likely knew about Petrov and Boshirov’s plan was clear. “This was not a rogue operation,” May continued. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
In this, she is undoubtedly right. Although Russia’s various security services (and its other instruments of geopolitical struggle against the West) are granted considerable operational autonomy, major operations with potentially serious international implications need a green light from the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]