Moscow Embarks on Rough Intelligence War on UK over Spy Poisoning

Three weeks after former spy Sergei Viktorovich Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who was on a visit form Moscow, were poisoned by a nerve agent, both remain in critical condition at the Salisbury District Hospital. London has not produced so far a shred of evidence to support the British government’s allegations that Moscow – and President Vladimir Putin in person – were responsible for the first chemical weapons attack on European soil, although Britain’s security services must be digging hard.

DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources learn that it has been discovered that the nerve agent classed as “Novichok” is stocked by 20 different countries.

As tempers cool, Prime Minister Theresa May must be regretting her declaration of a full-scale diplomatic, intelligence and personal war on Russia and its president. Her timing was particularly unfortunate in five respects, outlined here by DEBKA Weekly:

  1. If its purpose was to harm Putin’s prospects of re-election in the March 18 vote, it missed the mark. He won a crushing 76 percent of the vote for a fourth six-year term in office.
  2. Her hopes of strong and broad allied support for an aggressive British stance and sanctions against Russia were disappointed. The US and the European Union did condemn the poisoning but did not go all the way to finger Moscow. And then US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu all phoned Putin to congratulate him on his victory. None of them referred to the spy poisoning case in their phone calls, preferring to focus on their bilateral relations with the Kremlin.
  3. The British premier was already deeply mired in a battle with the Europeans over terms for Brexit when she opened a second warfront against Moscow. No one forced her to take on Putin while wrestling with the Europeans against near-impossible odds.
  4. On the political home front, too Theresa May is struggling. Her turbulent foreign secretary Boris Johnson heaps fuel on the fire of the poisoned spy affair by leaping into headline-grabbing remarks whenever the local media start losing interest. On Wednesday, March 31, he stood up before the House of Commons foreign affairs committee and accused Putin of “ordering the attempted assassination of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal in a bid to drum up support for his re-election.” He further escalated his rhetoric by offering the view that “Putin would preside over the World Cup this summer in the same way as Adolf Hitler did over the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.”

These outbursts have less to do with genuine outrage over the Skripal poisonings than the posture Johnson has adopted for upstaging May and shouting his way into 10 Downing Street.

  1. Three weeks into the crisis with Britain, Russian intelligence services have girded up for war against Britain’s MI5 and MI6 agencies. The newly-elected president is confident enough now to ride hard against his British attackers. Putin’s fingerprints were apparent in UK media reports on Thursday, March 22, reporting that British security officials “are deeply concerned that the Kremlin may reveal the identities of British intelligence officers in the escalating and bitter confrontation following the Salisbury nerve agent attack.” As one paper put it, “This disclosure could start, it is feared, with those who work for MI6 and the 23 British diplomats being thrown out of Moscow, in retaliation for the same number expelled from the UK. Doing so would break standard protocol in place to protect spies from opposing sides, in recognition that exposing personal details may put them in danger, including from terrorist attacks.”

British spy services, who leaked these reports, seem to be misreading the Skripal episode as a spy scandal like the ones that marked the days of the Cold War between West and East. They have got it wrong. The dispute between Moscow and Britain cuts much deeper into the relationship than would a spy scandal and entails tools far more sophisticated and broadly damaging. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence experts expect the Kremlin to go for British economic interests and its intelligence assets in the Middle East, but most of all, to target the special UK-US intelligence partnership. The spymasters in London and Washington may be wondering whether the first step in this campaign is not already at hand, with the exposure of the British-based Cambridge Analytica LLC for harvesting millions of Facebook profiles in the biggest ever breach of data. Cambridge Analytica calls itself a privately held company that combines data mining, data brokerage, and data analysis with strategic communication for the electoral process. It is also a joint US-British concern.

Putin’s payback and Moscow’s shadow war against Britain is only just beginning.

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