The former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, gave briefings to European intelligence services in the years before the attempt on his life, which may offer a motive for why Moscow allegedly targeted him with a deadly nerve agent.
Skripal was a regular lecturer in the United States (U.S.) and Europe for at least a decade, speaking at universities and military academies and to other groups interested in intelligence.
However, Whitehall sources said the revelation that he spoke on the lecture circuit, as other spies had done before him, neither explained nor justified the nerve agent attack.
Although his operational knowledge ended with his arrest in Russia in 2004, Skripal was still regarded as being of value because of his inside knowledge of the workings of Russian military intelligence.
According to the Czech magazine Respekt, Skripal visited Prague in 2012 and held discussions with Czech intelligence. He briefed security officers on Kremlin espionage methods, and the meeting was described as “beneficial”. Members of Czech intelligence subsequently met Skripal in the United Kingdom (UK) at least once, the magazine reported.
The claims shed new light on the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, 10 weeks ago in Salisbury. The pair was targeted with novichok, a lethal Soviet-developed nerve agent, in what the UK government maintains was a clandestine Russian operation.
The Russian government and its embassy in London have furiously denied the claims. They have pointed to the fact that Skripal – a senior officer in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence outfit – was jailed for spying for the British and later pardoned. He was exchanged in a spy swap in 2010 and settled in the UK.
He gave sensitive briefings to European intelligence agencies after he moved to Britain. It seems that MI6 approved of and facilitated these trips. In June 2016 Skripal travelled to Estonia and met a select group of intelligence officers there, the New York Times reported on Monday. It said it was unclear what they discussed.
Although his operational information was dated, ceasing with his arrest in Russia in 2004, he was still regarded as being of value because of his inside knowledge of the workings of Russian military intelligence.
Security sources in the Czech Republic said Skripal’s meetings with Czech intelligence agents would probably have been useful, but they dismissed them as a likely motive for the poisoning attack.
“It’s clear that he cooperated with the British services before that and they were the owners of his information, so that’s the reason [he was targeted],” one retired senior agent with the Czech foreign intelligence service, ÚZSI
He added: “The ties between MI6 and the Czech intelligence services are so good that it’s normal that the British were willing to rent him out, so to speak, to the Czech services. It would have been a very useful and interesting meeting for the Czechs, there’s no doubt about that. When do you have the chance to meet a KGB or GRU officer? Almost never.”
Ondrej Kundra, a security specialist with the magazine Respekt, said Skripal probably passed “specific information” about the operation of Russia intelligence operations in the Czech Republic gleaned from his previous position as head of the human resources with the GRU, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.
The Czech Republic has expressed repeated reservations about the large number of Russian diplomats – estimated at around 100 – stationed in the country amid suspicions that many of them are undercover spies.
“He knew the names of some GRU spies who were working within the EU – it didn’t matter that he was no longer working for them himself and had left many years before,” said Kundra.
“He knew agents who are still operating. But it’s not only about providing specific information. It’s also about the Czech guys wanting to know what these agents look like, what is their psychology and behaviour patterns, and so on. It’s one thing reading about these guys – if you have the chance as an agent to see them and ask questions, it’s even better.”