Putin’s Bold Attempt to Deny Skripal Attack

Belgrade,Serbia,March 9,2014.The rally of the Serbian nationalist parties Dveri..Supporters of ‘Dveri’ carry a photo of Putin..

By Mark Kelton

Mark Kelton retired from CIA as a senior executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations including serving as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence. He is a partner at the FiveEyes Group; a member of the Board of Trustees of Valley Forge Military Academy and College; member of the National Security Advisory Board of the MITRE Corp.; member of the Day & Zimmermann Government Services Advisory Board; member of the Siemens Government Technologies Federal Advisory Board; and a member of the Board of BigMediaTV.

“The concept of plausible denial had an undeniable flavor of wishful thinking about it”, wrote CIA veteran William Hood in his book on Soviet military intelligence (GRU)[1] officer and CIA spy, Pyotr S. Popov. Hood might just as well have been commenting on the risk calculus of Russian President Vladimir Putin when he authorized (as he surely must have) the March 2018 attempt to kill GRU defector Sergei Skripal.  If Putin truly believed the Russian role in the operation could be deniable, he ignored the lessons of history.

As I noted in a previous Cipher Brief article on the 2006 London murder of Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) defector Aleksandr Litvinienko (“The Tsar Knew”), Soviet and Russian intelligence services have a long history of engaging in assassination operations against those regarded as traitors to the state.  Some of those operations succeeded in killing the target, most spectacular among them the 1940 killing of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City and the 1937 shooting of rogue Soviet Illegal Ignace Reiss on a Swiss street.  However, even successful intelligence operations almost invariably don’t go wholly according to plan.  Further, as evidenced by the 2010 assassination of a Palestinian extremist in Dubai, killing a person without leaving a trail investigators can follow is no mean task.  Ramon Mercader, the ice axe-wielding Spanish communist who killed Trotsky, was arrested and imprisoned, while the Soviet team that machine-gunned Reiss precipitously fled Lausanne after the act, leaving a box of chocolates laced with strychnine behind in their hotel room.  Litvinienko’s killers also left a trail of the substance used to kill him; polonium, behind, for British investigators to follow.  While all of those assassinations were rightly ascribed to Moscow, they did, at least, eliminate their targets.

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