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A hundred grand and hundreds of betrayed agents What was former GRU Colonel Sergey Skripal's treason against Russia?

Meduza
Sergey Skripal’s arrest
Sergey Skripal’s arrest
RTR / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On March 4, a 66-year-old former colonel in Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate was hospitalized in critical condition in Salisbury, England, about eight miles from the Stonehenge monument. In 2010, Sergey Skripal was traded to Britain for a group of Russian spies discovered in the United States. Four years earlier, he’d been sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason. According to investigators, he provided British intelligence with information about Russian security agents. For a secret spy saga, there's actually quite a bit we know about his case.

Recruitment

Having worked for Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU) since the Soviet era, Sergey Skripal was recruited in 1995 by the British agent Pablo Miller, who at the time was posing as Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo and working in Britain’s embassy in Tallinn. Russia’s Federal Security Service says Miller was actually an undercover MI6 agent tasked with recruiting Russians.

The first reports about Miller's work in Russia emerged in the early 2000s, after multiple Russians arrested for spying fingered Miller as their recruiter. For example, former tax police Major Vyacheslav Zharko says it was Miller who recruited him. He says it was Boris Berezovsky and former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Alexander Litvinenko who introduced him to British intelligence agents. Zharko surrendered himself to Russian officials when he learned about the British authorities’ suspicions that another former FSB officer, Andrey Lugovoi, had poisoned Litvinenko with polonium.

Skripal, however, never turned himself in. For nine years, according to the FSB, he collaborated actively with British intelligence, transmitting information about Russian agents.

Nikolai Luzan, who calls himself a colonel and a veteran of Russia’s security agencies, wrote a detailed book about how the British recruited Sergey Skripal. Luzan says his book, “A Devil’s Counterintelligence Dozen,” is an “artistic-documentary production.”

If we assume that Luzan’s account is generally accurate, then Skripal was recruited during a long-term assignment in Malta and Spain, where he “got greedy.” On this trip, Skripal befriended a Spanish man with the surname Luis, and the two started their own wine-import business in secret from Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Luis later introduced Skripal to Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo, the British recruiter Pablo Miller’s alter ego. At first, Miller pretended to be another entrepreneur, inviting Skripal to go into business with him. According to Luzan, he once took Skripal to a strip club, but the Russian military intelligence colonel soon ran home to his wife.

In the end, Skripal and Miller came to an agreement: in exchange for money, Skripal provided information to the British about at least 300 of his colleagues in Russian intelligence. In 1999, he retired from the GRU for health reasons, but he soon traveled abroad and reconnected with Miller. Skripal agreed to spy again for Britain, and he got to work compiling data about the GRU’s inner structures. He often traveled to the Turkish city of Izmir, where he met British agents posing as tourists. On these trips, Skripal brought his wife, who apparently didn’t know anything about the nature of his activities.

According to the news agency TASS, after Skripal resigned from the GRU, he took a position in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s General Affairs Department, stepping down in 2003. In December the next year, he was arrested.

The trial

Sergey Skripal at a hearing in August 2006
Sergey Skripal at a hearing in August 2006
Yuri Senatorov / Kommersant / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Skripal never denied the charges against him. Like with any treason case, his trial was held in a closed session, and journalists were only permitted to attend the reading of the substantive provisions of his verdict in August 2006. As the judge announced a 13-year prison sentence, Skripal listened calmly. He came to court wearing a windbreaker in the colors of the Russian flag. When Skripal was found critically ill in Salisbury, most news outlets ran photos of the former GRU colonel taken at this sentencing 12 years earlier.

Prosecutors had asked for a 15-year sentence, but the judge took into account Skripal’s poor health and cooperation with investigators. The FSB argued that Skripal’s betrayal had been extremely damaging to Russian interests, even comparing him to Oleg Penkovsky, who is considered one of the West’s most effective spies. Penkovsky was arrested in October 1962 and executed by firing squad the following May.

According to what investigators could dig up, Skripal’s reward for nine years of spying was a surprisingly modest $100,000. Nevertheless, as Nikolai Luzan’s book argues, Skripal’s espionage work allowed him to live beyond the means of a typical GRU pensioner.

After the sentencing, Skripal tried to appeal the verdict. He was unsuccessful.

The spy swap and emigre life

Sergey Skripal was one of four Russians exchanged in 2010 for 10 Russian “sleeper agents” discovered in the United States. Skripal and another treason convict, Igor Sutyagin, decided to resettle in Great Britain, while the other two went to the U.S. The British press called Skripal “the spy with the Louis Vuitton bag,” after pictures surfaced showing him carrying a bag at an airport en route to meeting his handlers.

Unlike Sutyagin, who took a job with NATO and earned fame as a military expert, Skripal led a quiet life in Salisbury, where he reportedly bought an average house for 340,000 British pounds (about $472,000). His neighbors describe him as an ordinary, reasonably friendly pensioner. When he moved to the area, he even invited the whole street over for a housewarming party.

It’s unclear why Skripal decided to resettle specifically in Salisbury, but LinkedIn indicates that Pablo Miller — the MI6 agent who recruited him — lives in the same town. In 2015, the year he retired, Miller received the Order of the British Empire for services to Her Majesty’s Government.

Skripal’s wife, Lyudmila, lived with him in Salisbury until her death a few years ago. His son died from liver failure in 2017 in St. Petersburg.

When rescue workers in Salisbury found Skripal poisoned on March 5, he was with his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, who’s also now in critical condition. According to her Facebook page, she moved to Britain in 2010 with her father, but returned to Moscow a few years later. Speaking anonymously, one of Skripal’s relatives told the BBC’s Russian-language service that Skripal had feared for his life and believed Russia’s intelligence agencies wouldn’t just leave him alone.

Sergey Skripal and his daughter are currently hospitalized in critical condition. It’s still officially unknown how they were poisoned.

Story by Pavel Borisov, translation by Kevin Rothrock