From Russia with Death A Soviet Nerve Agent Triggers a New Cold War
Part 2: 'Oh, not again. Everything Is Happening Again.'
Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote in a tweet on Wednesday that "London is the de-facto capital of the post-Soviet mafia state."
British governments in the past 20 years, whether led by Labour or the Tories, have done whatever they possibly could to pave the way for Russian money to enter the country, including low taxes and lax regulation of financial transactions. "Investor visas" were initially open to all those willing to invest a million pounds in the British economy. That cleared the way to buy homes and property.
Billions flowed into the British capital as a result, and not just into accounts held in banks in the City. Many of the luxury apartments in the new, expensive residential towers stand empty, with the London skyline having come to resemble a gigantic bar chart documenting the wealth of its oligarchs. Just like the deep basements that have been bored into the earth beneath areas like Chelsea. Rich Russians have dug as many as six stories down to make room for their art and wine collections.
In 2015, a Deutsche Bank report called "Dark Matter" noted that London had become a popular site for money laundering and flight capital. Jonathan Eyal, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says: "It is easier to park your cash in London than anywhere else in Europe."
It began with Roman Abramovich, a friend of Putin's and one of the world's richest people. When he bought the London Premier League club Chelsea F.C. for 210 million euros in 2003, many began referring to the team as "Chelski." Rich Russians bought renowned newspapers like the Independent and the Evening Standard, the bookstore chain Waterstones and the record label Parlophone. And, of course, they bought mansions in Hampstead, Mayfair and on Belgrave Square, which is sometimes jokingly called "Red Square."
It was the new wealthy who shaped the cliché of Londongrad: They would hold champagne-drinking contests in nightclubs or wander through the exclusive Bond Street boutiques with thick wads of cash in their pockets. The moneyed elite has since become more discrete, though, now generally preferring to stay below the radar. It's referred to as "stealth wealth."
"I don't see any preparations of this government to hinder Russian money flowing into the UK," says the anti-corruption activist Roman Borisovich. If May's government wanted to tackle the issue, it could limit the number of visas issued, revoke banking licenses from Russian banks and put an end to anonymous business deals in London. "They could inflict a lot of pain on Putin's inner circle." But he suspects that she won't take such steps.
Marina Litvinenko could be found on Thursday sitting in one of those stylish, downtown London cafés that brings an hourglass to your table along with your tea. She is an elegant, 55-year-old woman with diaphanous skin and a penetrating gaze. In recent days, the past has painfully returned to haunt her.
She was in Berlin when a friend called to tell her about the Skripal case. She then saw in the internet the images of radiation experts in full-body hazmat suits and thought: "Oh, not again. Everything is happening again."
In November 2006, Russia made it abundantly clear to the world just how far it was willing to go under Putin's leadership to eliminate critics and traitors. That month in London, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, Marina's husband, died an agonizing death in the public spotlight. There are very few who continue to doubt that the Kremlin was behind his assassination.
It is only because three weeks passed between the time he was poisoned and his subsequent death that investigators were able to piece together the path taken by the deadly substance. They determined that Litvinenko met in the bar of the Millennium Hotel with Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, two businessmen who had also once worked for the KGB. Litvinenko claimed that he only drank a couple sips of the green tea that Lugovoi had offered him. He collapsed a short time later.
As later became clear, Litvinenko had been poisoned with the highly radioactive substance polonium-210. And his two former KGB colleagues had apparently had something to do with it: Wherever they spent time in London after the meeting with Litvinenko, experts were able to measure significant levels of radiation. But neither of the two was ever brought to justice. They were able to fly back to Russia, where Lugovoi is now a member of parliament.
The reaction in Britain to the Litvinenko poisoning was shockingly subdued. It was only in January 2016 that the judge overseeing the public inquiry into the case concluded that the Russian secret service had contracted the murder and that President Putin had "probably" approved it, but there have been no consequences.
And that, says Litvinenko's widow today, may have been a consequential misstep. "London gave Russia a second chance to behave civilized. They treated them mildly. But Putin and his people regard mildness as weakness. They only understand toughness." In the Skripal case, she warns against prematurely blaming Moscow. But she is also certain that Putin's henchmen are capable of carrying out an attack such as this one at any time.
In recent years, several people connected to Russia have lost their lives in London under puzzling circumstances. Following the death of Sergei Skripal, some of the investigations into those deaths are going to be reopened, Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced this week.
In several of these cases, the trail leads back to Boris Berezovsky, who possessed excellent contacts both within the Russian government and to the Russian underworld. He was also a friend of Putin's -- before he transformed into a vociferous enemy of the Russian president.
It is said that, to protect himself when leaving his villa, he would have four identical sedans drive off in four different directions. Three of them would be empty of passengers. Despite these safety measures, Berezovsky was found dead in the bathroom of his home in March 2013. He had apparently been strangled, but it still isn't clear today whether he committed suicide or was murdered.
A whole series of Berezovsky's business partners have died in recent years of unnatural causes. One fell from the roof of a shopping center in West London, another died in a helicopter crash, yet another was hit by an Underground train and one more toppled out of a penthouse window. Could all of them have been accidental? In several cases, the police quickly closed their investigations -- perhaps too hastily.
On Monday evening, the club of dead businessmen gained a new member. Nikolai Glushkov, the former vice president of the Russian airline Aeroflot, was found dead in his home in London. He, too, was a former business partner of Boris Berezovsky. Speculation surrounding the strange circumstances of his death have been rife ever since.
It is clear that those who fall afoul of the powers that be in Russia are living dangerously, no matter where they now live. Opposition activist Vladimir Ashurkov, who fled to London in 2014, says he feels safe and has become used to being watched. At events on issues pertaining to Russia, for example. "there are always people who behave differently and record things. They don't interact, and they dress differently." More in the "Russian style," he says.
On Thursday at midday, Theresa May visited the scene of the crime in Salisbury. Wearing a dark-blue overcoat and leopard-print loafers, she was led to the bench onto which Skripal collapsed and to the pub where he had been before that. Uniformed schoolboys held up their mobile phones to take pictures as May said a few friendly words to shopkeepers in the neighborhood.
She also spoke with first responders and visited the police officer who attended to Skripal and who is now in the hospital. His cars have been impounded, his home sealed off and his family quarantined. Nobody knows how far the poison may have spread; there is simply too little known about the substance. But there seem to be plenty of traces and up to 500 people may have come into contact with the toxin. That, in fact, may help explain why May's reaction has been so severe.
The Skripal case has intensified the ongoing escalation of tensions between the West and Russia that has been underway since Moscow's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. There was a brief moment after the end of the Cold War during which Russia was a partner to the West. Now, though, the country has once again become an enemy.
German intelligence officials have been keeping close track of the development. Thus far, to be sure, no Kremlin-ordered murders have been carried out on German soil. But security officials are concerned about the activities of both the GRU, Putin's military intelligence agency, and of the foreign intelligence agency SVR. They have repeatedly observed suspected Russian spies as they seek to recruit informants.
Officials have also identified encrypted satellite signals that they believe carry instructions to undercover Russian agents in Germany. On the basis of these signals, officials believe that there is a double-digit number of as-yet undiscovered Russian agents operating on German soil.
According to sources within Germany's security apparatus, concern about Russian spying was a primary catalyst for the revival of a secret unit within the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency. With the Cold War having come to an end, the BND ceased counterespionage activities in the 1990s. But according to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, the BND has once again established a "counterespionage" unit. It is still being developed and is focused on information pertaining to foreign intelligence services, primarily those from Russia. For the time being, the unit consists of a low, double-digit number of agents, but plans call for it to be expanded to 50.
At the main building of the British Ministry of Defense at Whitehall, further reprisals are currently under consideration. Just a few days after the nerve agent attack, May's government issued a statement saying that "offensive cyber can be used to deal with serious threats to the UK ... to meet those threats head-on."
The tabloid daily The Sun printed a map on Wednesday listing possible targets of such an offensive in Russia. According to the paper, which cites anonymous sources inside Whitehall, hackers working for the British government would be capable of paralyzing industrial, transportation and/or military facilities. The article included images of the Moscow subway, Russian power plants and Putin holding his mobile phone.
Even before the Skripal case, British military and intelligence officials openly threatened Russia with cyberattacks -- in response to Russian hacker attacks. The UK has possessed the necessary technological capabilities to carry out offensive cyberoperations for years -- and the country has demonstrated few scruples in the past when it comes to using them. From the trove of documents made public by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it is clear that even the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. is envious of some of the things their partner in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance is capable of. International experts believe the UK is just as capable in this arena as the U.S. and at least as powerful as Russia.
A 'Compelling Chain of Clues'
The key to the Skripal case is to be found in the toxin that was used. When the British briefed their German colleagues this week, they didn't go into great detail, according to sources in German security circles. Intelligence services suspect that could be because the British no longer completely trust the Americans and are particularly wary of Donald Trump.
The British didn't even tell their German counterparts which variation of the nerve agent they believe was used. Western intelligence experts suspect that it was Novichok of the A-232 variety, which is fluid enough to be used as a spray.
The vocabulary used by the UK and its allies indicates that British intelligence officials are highly confident in their assessment. Yet although it is clear which substance was used and that it very likely came from Russian stockpiles, there is no definitive proof that the Russian state was behind the attack, according to a senior German official on Thursday evening. The official has read through all of the documents that have thus far been presented. He said that intelligence officials are viewing the evidence laid out in those documents -- several tightly printed pages -- as a "compelling chain of clues."
Either way, the trail of the nerve agent used in Salisbury clearly leads to Moscow and back into the chemical weapons program once operated by the Soviet Union.
Officially, Russia no longer possesses any chemical weapons. On Sept. 27, 2017, Russian television viewers watched as Vladimir Putin issued an order from Moscow for a shell containing chemical agents be destroyed in faraway Udmurtia. With that, it was said, what had once been the largest chemical weapons arsenal in the world was history. But Western intelligence officials have long known that the Russians never completely eliminated stockpiles of Novichok.
The history of Russia's chemical weapons program began shortly after the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks at the time were extremely interested in the new toxic agents. In Shikhany, on the banks of the Volga River, experts from Germany trained the new regime in handling the weapons and Shikhany went on to become a satellite location of the state research institute GosNIIOKhT. Its headquarters are still to be found in Moscow, at Way of Enthusiasts No. 13.
Starting in the 1970s, this institute focused on developing a new generation of chemical weapons that were to be both particularly effective and undetectable to Russia's potential enemies in the West. The group of agents named Novichok remained strictly confidential.
As Vil Mirzayanov -- the man who lives in New Jersey -- slowly began to realize the amount of damage the poisons they were developing could do, his pangs of conscience began growing. "What am I doing? Why do we need this?" Those were the questions, says Mirzayanov, that began plaguing him and which led him to go public. He didn't want to be responsible for civilian deaths, he says, and was afraid of the poison.
He and his colleague Lev Fyodorov revealed the existence of the poison in the early 1990s in the Moscow newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti. Surprisingly, few believed them. But then, Mirzayanov was dismissed and arrested on accusations of high treason. The investigation lasted one-and-a-half years. He was imprisoned twice and lost his job; later, he sold candy on the streets of Moscow to support his family. Finally, the charges against him were dropped due to pressure from prominent supporters in Russia and abroad. He received permission to emigrate to the United States.
How Certain Is Certain?
Why are Mirzayanov and Western intelligence agencies so sure that the Russian state is behind the use of Novichok in Salisbury?
There is a report that a substance was used in a 1995 murder that at least resembles Novichok. The victim was a prominent businessman in Moscow named Ivan Kivelidi, a banker and the head of a Russian trade association.
Investigators became suspicious after his secretary died, as did the pathologist who examined Kivelidi's liver. They concluded that a nerve agent had been applied to the victim's telephone receiver -- and say that an employee of the chemical laboratory in Shikhany -- the satellite of the Moscow-based institute -- had supplied the poison. In 2007, a business partner of Kivelidi's was convicted of the murder, though the trial took place behind closed doors because it dealt with Russian military secrets.
If the official version of the Kivelidi case is true, that would mean that in the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, private persons may have gained possession of chemical weapons.
Mirzayanov considers that to be unlikely. "Chemical weapons were securely stored in the 1990s too," he says. "It's not easy to smuggle these substances out of the laboratory." He believes that Kivelidi wasn't killed using Novichok, but with the better-known nerve agent VX.
In the Skripal case, Mirzayanov can't imagine that anybody but the Kremlin could be behind it. "The Russians thought that nobody could identify Novichok," he says. "To do so, experts need a reference sample and people in Moscow apparently thought that the poison was undetectable." Mirzayanov believes that the British may have received a reference sample of the Soviet nerve agent from the Americans, allowing them to confirm the use of the substance.
Could the agent theoretically have come from stockpiles in other countries? "The toxin was only produced in Russia," Mirzayanov says. "You need a lot of time and money to develop formulas to the point that they can be deployed as biological weapons. I think they have researched the properties of Novichok but do not produce it. I don't think that any government would be prepared to invest the vast amount of resources needed to develop the necessary technologies."
Mirzayanov says he suspects that the components of the substance were brought to Britain separately, perhaps even in a diplomatic pouch, though that's nothing more than speculation. Indeed, the question as to how the nerve agent found its way into the country is one that investigators are extremely interested in.
Before its use, Mirzayanov says, the components could have been mixed together in a special pistol. The assassin, he says, would have to have been extremely well prepared so as not to endanger him- or herself.
Darkness has fallen outside and Mirzayanov becomes pensive. Is he afraid that he, too, could be targeted?
"I'm not afraid. If I start fearing for my life, then it's not life anymore. Just paranoia."
By Christian Esch, Matthias Gebauer, Julia Amalia Heyer, Peter Müller, Valentyna Polunina, Tobias Rapp, Mathieu von Rohr, Marcel Rosenbach, Christoph Scheuermann, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid and Christoph Schult
- Part 1: A Soviet Nerve Agent Triggers a New Cold War
- Part 2: 'Oh, not again. Everything Is Happening Again.'