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Skripal Was Retired, but Still in the Spy Game. Is That Why He Was Poisoned?

Posted May 14, 2018 11:19 a.m. EDT

PRAGUE — The aging Russian spy had been a free man for only a few years when he turned up in Prague for a secret meeting with his former adversaries. He looked ill, but acted jovial, drinking with his Czech hosts and joking that his doctor had prescribed whiskey for high blood pressure.

Then he got down to business, rattling off information about Russian spycraft and the activities of former colleagues that might give the Czechs an edge over their foes.

This was Sergei V. Skripal, the former Russian spy who along with his daughter was nearly poisoned to death with a rare and toxic nerve agent 10 weeks ago, touching off a furious confrontation between Russia and the West that has played out like a Cold War thriller and led to the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats from more than two dozen countries.

The British authorities have accused Russia of trying to assassinate Skripal — a charge the Russians angrily deny. One of Britain’s highest ranking spymasters, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, lambasted Russia on Monday in a speech to security chiefs in Berlin, accusing the Kremlin of “barefaced lying” and “criminal thuggery,” and warning Russia that it risked becoming a “more isolated pariah.”

Britain has suggested that the Kremlin staged its attack to send the message that it would never forget or forgive any traitor. To buttress their case, British authorities have portrayed Skripal as a symbolic victim who was living quietly in semiretirement in Salisbury, England, after being swapped in a high-profile spy exchange in 2010.

But in the years before the poisoning, Skripal, a veteran of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, apparently traveled widely, offering briefings on Russia to foreign intelligence operatives, according to European officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. The meetings were almost certainly approved and possibly facilitated by British authorities as a way to both educate their allies and provide Skripal with income.

He met with Czech intelligence officials on several occasions and visited Estonia in 2016 to meet with local spies. Such visits were neither illegal nor unusual for defectors. But they meant that Skripal was meeting with intelligence officers working to thwart Russian operations in Europe, opening the possibility that his poisoning was a narrower act of retribution.

There is no way to know for certain whether Skripal’s travels made him a target, or even if the Russian government knew about them. The trips were kept secret, known only to a select few intelligence agents. Not a single official from the spy services in the Czech Republic or Estonia would discuss the details publicly.

Asked whether Skripal had met in recent years with intelligence agents in Spain, where he had once worked as a double agent, a spokesman for the country’s foreign intelligence service, CNI, said the question “is a red line we cannot cross.”

Skripal arrived in Prague in 2012 shortly after his wife, Lyudmila, succumbed to uterine cancer. He was grieving, but nevertheless in good spirits when he met with officers from at least one of the Czech Republic’s three intelligence services, according to a Czech official with knowledge of the meetings. Some details of the visit were first reported over the weekend by the Czech weekly Respekt, and were confirmed independently by The New York Times

During the brief visit, Skripal drank, he joked, and he provided Czech intelligence with information about GRU officers operating in Europe. His information was dated; he retired from the GRU in 1999. Even so, the Czech officers found his knowledge to be valuable. Many of the GRU agents he worked with in the 1990s were still active, the official said. Though Skripal’s health was poor, the official said, his mind was clear.

Skripal was so helpful that Czech intelligence officers continued to meet with him, the official said, making several trips to Britain in subsequent years, though the exact dates are unclear.

Officials were more circumspect about Skripal’s visit to Estonia, with one describing it as “very sensitive information.” A senior European official with knowledge of the trip confirmed that the former Russian agent met secretly with a select group of intelligence officers in June 2016, though it is not clear what they discussed. The British intelligence services helped facilitate the meeting, the official said.

A spokesman for the British Home Office also declined to comment.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found semiconscious on a park bench in the British town of Salisbury on March 4. Officials later determined that they had been poisoned with novichok, a deadly nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union. The British government has accused Russia of manufacturing and stockpiling the agent, as well as training “special units” to employ it against Russia’s enemies.

Russia has aggressively denied any involvement and has lampooned the British investigation. But Skripal would certainly still have enemies in Russia, not least of all President Vladimir Putin, who has said he is incapable of forgiving betrayal. In 2006, a Russian military court convicted Skripal of selling out fellow Russian spies in exchange for payments from British agents. He was serving a 13-year sentence when he was unexpectedly sent to Britain in the 2010 spy swap.

Russia’s relations with Estonia and the Czech Republic, two former Communist Bloc countries, are freighted with the legacy of the Cold War. Estonia in particular moved aggressively to assert its independence after breaking with the Soviet Union in 1991, often provoking Russian ire. Ferreting out Russian spies is a source of national pride.

“Estonia has the best counterintelligence in Europe,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who was Estonia’s president for a decade and left office in 2016. “We’ve caught as many spies as Germany.”

Nothing about Skripal’s travels appears all that uncommon. John Sipher, who retired from the CIA in 2014 and once ran covert operations against the Russians, said the United States routinely deployed Russian defectors to lecture the intelligence services of its allies, though their meetings with other agencies would be kept secret to avoid angering Moscow.

“There is a bit of a game where, OK, the guy spied for us, we got what we wanted, and now that we’re out, we’re not going to rub your nose in it,” he said. Sharing knowledge and experience is often the only way a former spy can make a living, experts said. Ilves, the former Estonian president, called it the “spook version of a lecture tour.”

For former double agents, retirement can be dull and anticlimactic. The British government provides a stipend, but in the past defectors have protested that it is too small. In the late 1990s, a former spy named Victor Makarov filed a complaint against the British intelligence services over his miserable living conditions and eventually ended up camping outside Prime Minister Tony Blair’s residence in protest.

Others have resorted to creative and illegal means to augment their pensions. Oleg Gordievsky, a senior KGB officer whose defection in 1985 was a serious blow to the Soviet government, hosted a game show for a time. Mikhail Butkov, another KGB defector, was imprisoned for three years for creating a fake business school and defrauding would-be students out of 1.5 million pounds.

“It’s psychological — they’ve been in the limelight, and they’re not important anymore,” said Stephen Dorril, the author of numerous books about Britain’s intelligence services.

Skripal appeared to be enjoying a comfortable, though modest, retirement. In Salisbury, the cozy cathedral town where he lived, the former Russian intelligence officer belonged to the Railway Social Club, drove a dark red BMW and owned a tidy red-brick home on Christie Miller Road.

Still, it was clear that he remained under Russian scrutiny. In 2013, the GRU hacked into his daughter’s email accounts, according to the British government. And in 2014, his case was profiled in a Russian documentary series about the lives of Russian traitors called “The Price of Military Secrets” that was financed by the Moscow government.

The Kremlin would probably not consider sharing outdated information with foreign intelligence services to be much of a threat, said Sipher, the retired CIA officer. But it would be a different matter if Skripal was being used for other purposes, like recruiting new Russian agents.

“If he was pitching other Russians, that would put him higher on the list,” Sipher said. “Or if he got too close to something that was really sensitive to the Russians.”