Don't snicker at Russia's spy goons. They may have the last laugh
Despite strong words, Western governments have been weak fighting Russian spying and money laundering
Vladimir Putin appears to be the only person on the planet who remains resolutely unamused by the clownish antics of Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU).
While the rest of us have enjoyed a hearty chuckle at the expense of the spy agency, first over its inept involvement in the UK's Salisbury poisoning, and then over its equally hapless operation to bug the offices of chemical weapons inspectors in Amsterdam, Putin has had a serious sense of humour failure.
And it only gets worse.
For now, thanks to the efforts of the investigative website Bellingcat, we know the real identities of the two GRU officers who visited Salisbury. After the first assassin was identified as Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a decorated GRU officer, Bellingcat has unmasked his accomplice as Alexander Mishkin, a doctor who also served as a military intelligence officer, whom Putin personally gave the Hero of the Russian Federation award in 2014.
It is unlikely further awards will be forthcoming for either man. According to Russian media reports, they are more likely to be on the receiving end of a Stalinesque purge of the GRU’s ranks as Putin vents his anger at the performance of what is supposed to be Russia’s elite military outfit.
Yet, while there can be no doubt recent revelations have damaged the GRU’s standing, it would be foolhardy to write off an organisation that remains in the vanguard of the Kremlin’s campaign against the West. You have only to look at the GRU’s track record to see that, despite its recent setbacks, it remains a formidable and well-resourced adversary.
Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, the Baltics and the Balkans are just some of the recent conflict zones where the GRU has proved its operational effectiveness. And, with the Syria conflict winding down, the latest intelligence reports suggest the GRU is trying to move into Libya, allowing Putin, as one British security official commented, to make the war-torn North African nation “his new Syria”, thereby allowing him to challenge Nato’s southern flank.
The GRU, therefore, remains a formidable enemy, one that may well seek to avenge its recent setbacks by intensifying its efforts to target Britain. It is certainly a scenario that ministers need to take on board and, in view of their response to the Salisbury poisoning so far, it raises significant questions about the UK government’s willingness to confront such threats.
Ministers will point to the detailed exposé they provided on the Salisbury attack as evidence of their determination to hold Moscow to account. This included explicit calls to action, with Prime Minister Theresa May promising to orchestrate an international campaign against the GRU, and the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt demanding tougher sanctions.
Fighting talk indeed. Yet, in terms of the follow-through, Whitehall appears a great deal more reluctant to engage in direct confrontation with the Russians.
It is curious, for example, that MI6, whose constitutional duty is to prevent foreign powers from attacking the UK, appears so relaxed about Bellingcat grabbing all the limelight by revealing the true identities of the GRU assassins. MI6 and its sister service, MI5, have known for months the GRU officers’ real names (they have also identified a third GRU officer who scouted out the Skripals’ home), as well as all the detailed background information that has now appeared on the Bellingcat website.
Which raises the question: are British spooks attempting to use the independent status of Bellingcat to cover their tracks in the same way that Russian intelligence used Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks to leak embarrassing details of the 2016 US presidential election campaign?
Whitehall’s disinclination, moreover, to take the lead role in naming and shaming the would-be GRU assassins is symptomatic of the government’s wider reluctance to pursue hostile groups. The refusal to take back Islamist terrorists who have fought in Syria; the unwillingness to join the US in confronting Iran; the failure to tackle the ability of Russian oligarchs to use London as a money-laundering base. All of these signify a government that is all too willing to dodge difficult issues when it comes to national security.
Another example of Britain’s disinclination to follow words with action is reflected in its attitude towards the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a key ally of Putin. In America, the FBI has reportedly frozen Deripaska’s assets as part of its continued crackdown on Putin’s allies. By contrast, the British government is ignoring efforts by Tory peer Lord Barker to restructure another of Deripaska’s assets, the London-based energy company EN+, which critics claim is being undertaken to avoid US sanctions.
This is not the conduct one would expect from a government that claims to be serious about confronting Britain’s enemies, whether in Russia or elsewhere. And the concern must be that, if Westminster continues to behave in this vein, it will not be long before we become a laughing stock ourselves.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)