The quiet cathedral city, Salisbury, in Wiltshire, south-west England, has been thrust into global headlines after passers-by found a grey-haired man, in his sixties, slumped on a park bench with his daughter.
Anywhere else in the UK, they would have been viewed as junkies who had a good night out. But as the days went by, we now know Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33 were not junkies and neither were they your average individuals. Skripal was a former officer from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, who in 1995 began secretly working for MI6. He was arrested in 2004, convicted of treason and sent to a penal colony. In 2010, Skripal got out, less than halfway through his 13-year sentence. The FBI had captured a group of Russian sleeper agents in the US. In a scene from the Cold War, Skripal was swapped on the tarmac of Vienna airport. The sleepers went home to Moscow. Skripal’s destination was Salisbury, England.
Britain has gone into a tailspin as another incident of state terrorism has taken place on British soil. The media have pushed sarin and VX nerve agent into public discourse and begun propagating Cold War era stories of KGB cells carrying out kill-orders. British politicians have tried to come across strong, accusing Russia of the killings and Putin himself.
Although such incidents are often described as “reminiscent of the Soviet era,” espionage between Russia and the West never subsided after the Cold War. In reality, spying is even more common now than before. However, in the last decade, in tandem with Russia’s resurgence, Russian spies have been spreading across the globe once again.
Russia for long has used its intelligence services to maintain territorial integrity and to spread Russian influence abroad. It was Lenin that set up the KGB in 1917, after the collapse of the Soviet Union it became the Federal Security Service (FSB). A 1983 Time Magazine article stated that the KGB was the world’s most effective information-gathering organisation . At the time the KGB operated legal and illegal espionage residencies in target countries where the legal resident spied from the Soviet embassy.
Russia has been an economic wreck for most of its history. Russia, under the Czar’s and the communists, suffered crushing poverty and societal breakdown. In 1933 over 3 million people perished in Ukraine due to Stalin’s attempts at agricultural collectivisation. But what made Russia the economic cripple into a military giant was political power. Both the Czar and the Communist Party maintained a ruthless degree of control over society through the secret service. This allowed the regime to divert resources from consumption to the military and suppress resistance. Repression and terror smoothed over public opinion.
Russia underwent a decade of horror after the collapse of the Soviet Union as various factions fought for control over the remains. Former members of the KGB fought to salvage what remained of Russia. The St. Petersburg Brigade, Western-leaning technocrats, controlled the Finance and Economic ministries and the oligarchs emerged as a new elite group of post-Soviet business rulers that controlled most of Russia’s vital business sectors.
The security class under the leadership of Putin – himself a former KGB agent, worked to counter the strength of the liberals and the influential elite during the era of Boris Yeltsin. When Vladimir Putin become President of Russia in 1999 he managed to gain a grip on the nation.
As Russia’s secret service has been the central institution that held the vast nation together it was also the institution with the experience to navigate Russia through the societal breakdown that took place in the 1990s.
Before Putin rose to power he was a KGB specialist for commercial espionage stationed in Dresden, Germany. When he became Russian leader in 1999 one of the first policies Putin pursued was to clean the house. Russia’s internal consolidation began with the Kremlin regaining control over the country politically, economically and socially while re-establishing its control over Russia’s wealth of energy reserves. The recentralisation of the Russian state resulted in the nationalisation of key sectors, assets, utilities and industries. Putin brought each of the nation’s key sectors under Kremlin control one after the other. He dealt with the oligarchs who were essentially looting the nation by threatening them of state intervention in the empires that they had amassed.
A number of former KGB agents and oligarchs fell foul of the Kremlin as Putin consolidated power, they believed the heyday of the KGB was over and viewed the Putin era as another passing moment in Russia’s long and turbulent history. The Kremlin picked off the oligarchs one after another, after giving them ultimatums to stay out of politics – the era of pillaging Russia was over. Putin had by 2003 consolidated his government and was edging the oligarchs as a class out of Russian politics.
Vladimir Gusinsky (MediaMost) and Boris Berezovsky both escaped Russia by escaping to London whilst Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Yukos oil), was arrested in October 2003 and spent the next decade in prison. Other oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich remained in the Kremlin’s favour as they kept out of politics. A number of former KGB agents who are seen as undesirables, who criticised the Kremlin have been assassinated abroad; Alexander Litvinenko being the most famous and now Sergei Skripal receiving the same fate.
Russia has once again using its prized institute – its secret service, to protect and expand Russian interests. Russia continues to use its FSB agents to gain corporate secrets and disrupt attempts by foreign government to access former KGB agents and oligarchs who have fallen out with the Kremlin. A number of oligarchs have found asylum in the West especially in London and with the assassination of Sergei Skripal, Russia has shown no dissident is safe from the claws of the Kremlin.
What Will Britain Do?
There is little Britain can do and the case of Alexander Litvinenko is very revealing. The British murder investigation pointed to Andrey Lugovoy, a former member of Russia’s Federal Protective Service, as the prime suspect. Britain demanded that Lugovoy is extradited, which is against the constitution of Russia, which directly prohibits extradition of Russian citizens. Russia denied the extradition. After Litvinenko’s death, his widow, Marina, pursued a vigorous campaign on behalf of her husband through the Litvinenko Justice Foundation. In October 2011, she won the right for an inquest into her husband’s death to be conducted by a coroner in London: The inquest concluded in January 2016 that Litvinenko’s murder was an FSB operation, that was probably personally approved by Vladimir Putin. Today, Andrey Lugovoy is an elected politician in the Russian parliament.
 John Kohan (14 February 1983). “Eyes of the Kremlin”. Retrieved 19 January 2014.