The Russian spy couldn’t get enough of the wonders he encountered on his first posting to the West.
All his life — as a child, as a rugged and ruthless paratrooper in the Soviet army and now as a colonel in the GRU military intelligence service — he had been ideologically conditioned to think of himself as a fighter in the struggle of communism and Mother Russia against Western imperialism.
Yet here he was working from the embassy on the glorious Mediterranean island of Malta and it was, well, amazing.
Unlike the bleak fare in the shops back home, fresh seafood was abundant, along with traditional Maltese delicacies such as fish pie and rabbit stew.
Kremlin double agent and novichok victim Sergei Skripal with his daughter Yulia in the 1980s
There were Sundays at the beach with his children and happy hours exploring the island’s baroque architecture and spectacular scenery.
And everyone he met on the diplomatic circuit was so nice, whatever their nationality.
In Afghanistan, just a few years before, he had taken part in murders of people merely on the suspicion they were working for the CIA.
In Malta, he found himself chatting face to face with members of the agency, and for that matter MI6 or young American sailors, and found them to be perfectly charming and friendly.
They too had little kids they were bringing up. Why hate them? For the first time, a seed of doubt was planted about his homeland.
Over time it would grow into dissidence and then into a full-scale rebellion, a changing of sides.
Skripal with daughter Yulia who became the victims of the novichok poisoning in Salisbury
Fast forward three decades and that, in turn, would make him the victim of an assassination attempt on British soil, bringing relations between Moscow and the West to a new low.
For that Russian agent, wide-eyed and envious as he soaked up the sun and the heady atmosphere of freedom on Malta in 1984, was Sergei Skripal — his name now instantly recognised around the world as the target of a Russian revenge plot.
As he lay in hospital in Salisbury earlier this year, close to death from the Novichok nerve agent he and daughter Yulia had been poisoned with, I found myself in a unique position.
Skripal (pictured right) with his parents in Russia. He married his home-town sweetheart, Liudmila
Unlike every other journalist covering the story, I had not only met Skripal but interviewed him extensively.
For many hours, last year, we discussed espionage as part of my research for a book that, as a specialist on intelligence matters, I was planning to write about spying in the aftermath of the Cold War. Now, though, he is a book in his own right.
Who is this former spy, now apparently recovered from the poisoning and in hiding, perhaps never to resurface to give his own account of events?
And what had he done to land himself as the key player in a major international confrontation?
This is his story, as he told it to me . . .
His upbringing was a pretty standard one for a boy in the post-war Soviet Union.
Born in 1951, he was military to the core, the son of a father who had fought with the Red Army, and inculcated from early on in the strength of the Soviet state in defeating the Nazi menace.
It was a natural step from high school to a military engineering college before being commissioned in the army as Second Lieutenant Skripal and swearing the military oath of allegiance to the USSR.
Its words would come to haunt him. ‘I will spare neither blood nor life itself to achieve complete victory over enemies,’ he had to declare.
‘If I violate this solemn oath of mine, may the harsh retribution of the Soviet law and the universal hatred and scorn of the working people befall me.’
Married to his home-town sweetheart, Liudmila, who would prove the firm foundation of his adult life, an easy posting beckoned as an engineer in an army garrison. He was having none of it.
Instead, he chose a far tougher course — as a paratrooper in Russia’s elite airborne corps. With his boxer’s physique and pugnacious nature, he fitted in well.
A quick learner and hard worker, Skripal soon graduated to reconnaissance units, then to the ‘dark’ side of covert operations and intelligence work when the Soviet Union embroiled itself in Afghanistan.
There, he went undercover and killed without compunction when ordered to. Recruited to join the upper echelons of the GRU — considered a cut above the loathed KGB — he had four years of training in intelligence gathering and how to recruit and run agents overseas.
His new position brought him into the higher strata of Soviet military life, with a home for his growing family — son Sasha was born in 1974. They would later move to an exclusive Moscow suburb for high-flyers like him.
And so he came, in 1984, to that first foreign assignment, Malta, where he stayed for five years on the embassy staff, nominally as an attache for sport and culture.
In a smart tan suit, he was photographed in the local paper, a smiling figure arranging water polo coaching and football matches.
Secretly, he trawled for prospective agents among the island’s ruling circles and tried to spot Western diplomats, military people or spooks he could attempt to recruit.
He spent evenings with U.S. sailors and airmen, who regularly came to Malta on leave from their bases in southern Italy.
He bought them drinks as they chatted away and, in their delightful company, those doubts began about whose side he really wanted to be on. It was an idyllic life for the Skripals, but it could not last.
Summoned back to Moscow when his posting ended in 1989, they returned, now with four-year-old Yulia in tow, along with western electronic goods, fancy clothes and happy memories.
Back at GRU headquarters, at this point he still considered himself a loyal officer, though he was unnerved by the political upheavals at home after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.
As the Soviet Union began to break up, he felt himself betrayed by the country’s new democratic leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.
He wrestled with his feelings about that oath of allegiance he’d given as a young soldier. Did it still apply, now that the USSR he’d made his pledge to had disappeared into chaos?
Disillusioned, in the summer of 1992 he made his way to GRU HQ, requested a meeting with a general and resigned. ‘I don’t accept the Russian democrats,’ he explained, ‘I don’t want to serve the new government.’
His resignation was rejected. Far too many officers were already jumping ship.
To keep him happy he was offered a job in the Paris embassy — until someone with better connections snatched that plum from him and he was assigned instead to a special mission in Spain, supporting a network of sleeper agents who could be called into action in the event of war.
After a crash course in Spanish, the Skripals went to Madrid in September 1993 and he took up his notional embassy post as Scientific and Technical Secretary.
It was there that he was targeted for turning by Britain’s MI6, desperate to make inroads into the GRU, whose Madrid station mounted espionage operations against Nato installations and also specialised in stealing Western technology, sending it back home to be secretly copied.
Over the years thousands of purloined objects, blueprints and technical handbooks had allowed Soviet industry to make great leaps in everything from missile-guidance systems to new passenger planes — all thanks to the GRU. The collapse of the Soviet Union had brought droves of defectors to the West with insider secrets to sell.
But the GRU, more disciplined than the other intelligence agencies, was proving hard to crack. Skripal, it was decided, could well be their man.
Catching him, though, would be a waiting game and so it was not until 1996, when the Russian was reaching the end of his three-year posting in Madrid, that a young MI6 agent — Richard Bagnall (not his real name) — made his pitch.
Introduced by a mutual acquaintance, the two men met in a park in the heart of the city and chatted amiably as they strolled among the hothouses, statues and boating lake.
They dined together at smart restaurants, getting to know one another over gin and tonics, glass after glass of Spanish wine, then brandy.
In a carefully choreographed seduction, Bagnall posed as an oilman from Gibraltar looking for a business partner in Russia.
As he sought to draw in the Russian ‘diplomat’, he took the family to a flamenco club and brought presents for little Yulia and Sasha. ‘The kids loved him,’ Skripal reflected to me later.
Naturally on his guard after all his years in the GRU, Skripal suspected his new friend might be a spook. But a spy for whom?
If his suitor was CIA, he wasn’t interested. He wasn’t willing to take the risks involved in treason for America.
But Britain was different. ‘My opinion about Great Britain was very positive,’ he told me, and one of the reasons was ‘this idea expressed in the saying that the Englishman’s home is his castle’.
It chimed with a present Bagnall had brought him from London — a brightly painted model of an English country cottage with an arched front door.
For some reason it had a real significance for Skripal and he took it with him wherever he lived, ending up in his sitting room in Salisbury.
Meanwhile, in Madrid the moment had come when Bagnall cautiously put his cards on the table.
‘Sergei,’ he confided, ‘I have a friend who would really value your information on what is really going on inside Russia. He works for the British government. Do you think you can provide that for us? You would be looked after, of course.’
Skripal had his answer ready. He still loved his country but his country had changed and not for the better.
‘When I came to Spain,’ Skripal explained to me, ‘I was already thinking of a life outside Russia. I wanted to make business contacts, get some money and then maybe, later, resign from the GRU.’
It was game on. He would trade information for money, so long as he had the promise of an exit route — documents, passport and so on — if it went wrong.
With the deal sealed, at their next meeting, in a hotel room, Skripal, eager to show his worth, passed over a piece of paper on which he had drawn a chart of the organisation and command structure of the GRU.
As he scanned the document, Bagnall’s pleasure was obvious. London was delighted, too.
MI6 had an agent inside the GRU for the first time in 30 years. He was given a codename — Forthwith. At a flat specially rented for the purpose in Madrid, Bagnall began a thorough debriefing of Skripal, starting with that GRU diagram and mining away at the connections between departments and the individuals who ran them.
What was this man’s background? Who were his allies and who were his rivals? Who was ripping off funds?
For each meeting Skripal was paid a few thousand dollars, but it was worth every last cent. After so many years without any real insight into the GRU, MI6 was now getting it in glorious Technicolor.
With Skripal’s inside knowledge, they would be able to target more Russians to try to turn in the East-West espionage game. Shortly after his deal with MI6, Skripal’s three-year posting in Madrid ended and once more he was back in Moscow.
MI6 was thrilled. The idea of having an agent inside the Glass House, as GRU’s headquarters was known, was beyond their wildest dreams. But Skripal was wary. Meeting MI6 handlers in Russia was too dangerous.
So in September 1996, Skripal and Bagnall bade each other goodbye. They had established a strong rapport in just a few months and Skripal considered the MI6 officer a friend, but they had no idea if they would ever speak again.
The Russia that Skripal returned to was in a state of near-chaos under Yeltsin and the rich oligarchs who backed him. He didn’t like what was going on politically.
Professionally, though, he was back in the heart of things. His new job was running the GRU’s personnel department, which gave him a place on the management board running the organisation.
MI6’s Agent Forthwith was now privy to the affairs of the whole concern. He knew the details of who was in which overseas GRU station and what their functions were.
He knew who was being prepared to go out next to take over, too. All of this was valuable information for the counter-espionage services of Western countries.
There was much that Skripal wanted to share, not least because it was information he knew London would pay for.
Equally, he knew how risky communication using traditional spycraft would be if he tried it on his home ground. Dead-drops could be placed under observation, agents or couriers could be followed.
He could use short-wave radios and one-time pads for encryption, but if these were discovered in his flat, it would be a one-way ticket to the Gulag.
Then in 1997 his wife Liudmila took a holiday in Spain with Yulia, leaving him behind; he was unable to accompany them abroad as a tourist because of the sensitive nature of his job.
In Alicante, mother and daughter checked into their hotel and out of the blue an old friend turned up — Richard Bagnall.
He arrived with a gift and in return she gave him the present her husband had asked her to give him. It was a Russian novel, a small token of his friendship perhaps, but one that he knew would mean so much to his friend from MI6.
Bagnall raced back to London with the book, where MI6 experts uncovered pages of writing in invisible ink — a skill Skripal had learned in his training days.
Now he’d crammed a years’ worth of secret reporting to British intelligence into the volume Liudmila gave to Bagnall on his behalf. (He insisted to me that she was unaware of its contents.)
As for the present from Bagnall she brought back to Moscow at the end of her holiday, it consisted of thousands of dollars in cash.
Skripal’s secret reporting was ‘extremely well received by the Security Service’, a Whitehall figure told me.
He helped pinpoint GRU spies in the UK, who were then warned off, side-lined or fed disinformation to send back to Moscow.
He was also able to update MI6 on the growing rivalry between the GRU and the FSB, the Federal Security Service, the newly constituted successor to the disgraced KGB counter-intelligence and surveillance service.
His analysis was an important element in building MI6’s picture of the power struggles going on inside Russia. His output though was, of necessity, limited.
A second volume with more thoughts in invisible ink was handed over by his wife during a holiday in Malaga the following year, but this seems to have been the only other use of this channel of communication.
There were only two deliveries but they added substantially to British intelligence’s fund of knowledge as it upped its game against the Russians in the post-communist era.
There, amid all the murderous jostling of oligarchs and politicians for power and influence, Yeltsin appointed a shadowy ex-KGB type, one Vladimir Putin, as Director of the FSB. This was followed by a spate of unexplained murders.
Within a year, he was prime minister and in line to be the country’s next president.
In this new climate of fear and repression, Skripal’s bosses decided he should clear his GRU desk and retire.
Aged 48, he left in September 1999, but found himself with a pension that rampant inflation had reduced to a pittance.
To bring in a decent income, he started a business with old comrades from the army engineers, selling demolition services for the construction industry. He also offered his skills as a ‘fixer’ with local government connections to contractors building a big housing development.
And though he was now out of the GRU loop, he found he was still of use to MI6. They had queries on his previous reports that needed answering, as he knew they would.
He told me that he had always deliberately held some information back. Better not to give them everything at once, for even spies have to consider their longevity.
Now freed from restrictions on his foreign travel, early in 2000 Skripal headed for some winter sun. He and Liudmila arrived in Malaga, where an old friend was waiting for them: Richard Bagnall, of course.
The two chatted and drank in the sunshine and Bagnall revealed he was moving to a new job at MI6, promoted to run his own overseas station.
He introduced Stephen Jones (again, not his real name), an experienced professional who would be Skripal’s new contact.
Jones went to work straight away, wanting to know as much as Skripal could tell him about the new men in the Kremlin and particularly Putin, now installed as President of the Russian Federation. One of his first acts in office was to place the FSB under his personal control.
In Moscow, a new elite held sway, consisting of Putin’s mates. They saw their job as the salvation of Russia from Western aggression and rooting out traitors who would sell out their Motherland for foreign money.
‘A traitor must be destroyed, crushed,’ Putin declared in an interview, summing up the new mindset that ruled Russia.
As MI6 tried to get to grips with these new power realities, Skripal’s knowledge and insights were still a valuable asset. Though he had left the GRU, he remained part of a tight network with former colleagues.
He explained to me: ‘I would go to a party and ask friends: “How is so-and-so?”. They would say: “Oh, he’s off to Paris soon”, and this way I would know he was the new resident there and could pass this on.’
These titbits were passed to Jones at meetings in Spain, Portugal, Malta, Italy and Turkey —seven or eight of them between 2000 and 2004, usually under the cover of Skripal family holidays but sometimes ‘business trips’.
Skripal was paid around 3,000 dollars each time.
Elsewhere, though, the world was moving on and with the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the focus of the West’s intelligence services shifted dramatically.
All that mattered now was countering jihadi terrorism. Reports about what was happening inside Russia were marginal.
‘Skripal was a fantastic agent, but at the wrong time,’ a Whitehall source told me. ‘After 9/11 his product ended up being only of interest to a handful of counter-intelligence nerds.’
Moscow, however, had not forgotten him, as Skripal was about to find out. In October 2004 he flew to Izmir in Turkey for another meeting with Jones. There, the MI6 case officer delivered some bombshell news.
An old colleague of Skripal — a GRU officer at the Madrid embassy who had been turned by the Spanish intelligence services — had been arrested by the FSB, interrogated and confined to a military hospital in Russia, where he had been found dead with strangulation marks on his neck and his fingers cut off.
The official explanation was suicide, but the severing of some of fingers was a grisly warning.
MI6 was worried that Skripal might be under suspicion, too.
Did he want to be exfiltrated, or, at least, simply not return to Moscow? Ways could be found to bring his family to him.
Skripal thought it over. He didn’t consider himself at particular risk. He hadn’t noticed anything suspicious and he reckoned there were various ways his unfortunate ex-colleague might have been discovered by the FSB.
No, he would return to Moscow. It was a bad decision.
As he made his way through the streets of Izmir to his hotel, his counter-surveillance skills failed him, or perhaps he was over-confident after eight years of this double life.
He didn’t notice he was being followed. Back in Moscow, he went about his daily business.
Daughter Yulia had gone to school and he headed for the neighbourhood police station to renew the licence for the pistol he kept at home.
He barely made it through the door before masked men leapt on him, twisting his arms behind his back and pulling his coat down around his shoulders to immobilise him further.
They weren’t taking any chances with this burly ex-paratrooper and boxer.
Handcuffs were snapped on him and a bag pulled over his head before he was bundled into a dark blue mini-van.
Sergei Skripal was in the hands of Putin’s interrogators, the FSB. He was about to descend into hell.
Adapted from The Skripal Files by Mark Urban, to be published by Macmillan on October 4 at £20. Copyright Mark Urban 2018.
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