Review: The Skripal Files by Mark Urban
The name Sergei Skripal was not widely known before the 4 March 2018. Skripal’s name had appeared in some newspaper articles as the subject of a prisoner exchange with Russia in 2010. Mark Urban’s recently published The Skripal Files aims to describe the ex-GRU officer’s life and put the events of March 2018 into context. Urban, a respected BBC journalist with much experience in defence and security matters, was in the fortuitous position of having interviewed Skripal many months before his unfortunate poisoning. For the record, I have met Mr. Urban several times over the past few years.
The Skripal Files is, first and foremost, a biography of Sergei Skripal, who worked at the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence agency. There are, quite understandably, gaps in the narrative. The author interviewed Sergei Skripal a number of months prior to his exposure to nerve agent, and has canvassed a number of sources close to intelligence services in order to put together a reasonable biography of Skripal. There simply is not enough material for a dense treatment of the subject. There’s several reasons for this. Phases of Skripal’s life, even in the GRU, were relatively uneventful. Given that intelligence work is mostly dull, this is not just plausible, but highly likely. Some of Skripal’s assignments, described in high detail, would be stultifying. In addition, there are many things that, even well after his retirement, he may not wish to say to a BBC journalist. This is all understandable, and given the material, Urban does the best job possible. Indeed, Skripal’s career was not a sensational one, and one suspects that this book is a good example of the average, not the unusual. Someone wanting to study the GRU would do well to read it.
Skripal’s career took him from childhood in Kaliningrad, through Red Army service as a junior officer, to his entry into the ranks of the GRU. Of particular interest are the accounts of his service in Malta, and in Spain, where he was recruited by British intelligence. The descriptions of Skripal’s espionage, both for Russia and for the United Kingdom, as well as his eventual unmasking and exchange, make for an excellent read. His time in prison in the Russian region of Mordovia is a good account of the penal system in modern Russia. The book is leavened with excursions into related subjects, such as stories about Russian “illegal” agents in North America and the Litvinenko murder. The bit about “Novichok” nerve agents is essential for broader understanding. If poorly executed, such digressions can come across as trying to stretch the base material into a longer manuscript, but Urban pulls it off by keeping the anecdotes tied to the overall narrative. Overall, this book is an enjoyable one designed for a broad audience. Urban’s prose is eminently readable, as one would expect for someone with as much experience.
The Skripal Files may be a little underweight as a biography, but where it does best is in raising interesting and valuable points about Russia and its relationship with the West. The most important issue is the disproportionate nature of the Novichok incident. Even though some of what we now know about the original poisoning incident was not known at the time of writing, it is abundantly clear that the death of Dawn Sturgess, the illness and the property damage caused by the Russian state was well out of proportion to the act of killing someone. In broad economic terms, the city and region have suffered greatly from this, as I have already written elsewhere on this site. The use of a weapon that is unpredictable, pernicious, and persistent as Novichok A234 shows callous disregard for the people of Britain. It’s only because of sheer luck and the skill of the NHS that more people aren’t dead and that the taxpayers and property owners are not burdened with even more cleanup costs.
Another issue raised in this tale is: why try to kill Skripal? Urban only hints at motives, but you cannot read the book and not ask yourself the obvious questions.
The overall impression that one gets from the book is that, even for the vindictive and jealous Putin, Sergei Skripal is likely a second or third tier target. He had been pardoned, was traded fairly in a swap after doing time in prison, and was not in hiding. Others were almost certainly much higher on a notional Russian “assassination priority list” – Gordievsky, Mitrokhin, and Rezun are all mentioned by Urban. They’ve all done more visible damage to Russian intelligence than anything Skripal achieved. Various exiled oligarchs would rate higher as well. The damage done to the GRU was years before, and was not nearly as significant as that done by others.
We are left with the conclusion that, perhaps, the attempted assassination of Skripal was meant to have symbolic meaning far greater than one dead mid-grade paroled double agent. It could easily have done been for the overall discouragement of defectors, a subject Putin is known to be keen to pursue. The death of the target isn’t really needed for this, if the target loses his house and property, his daughter gets hurt, and he spends weeks in hospital. Arguably, the dirty nature of the act itself is a feature, not a byproduct, and the way the incident unfolded holds more deterrent value than a quiet death at home on the couch. Further, there may have been overlapping motives. I have always wondered if the poisoning was an attempt to provoke a British backlash against Russians in Britain, many of whom are not actually pro-Putin and hiding vast wealth from Putin’s treasury. For this to work, the act in question would have to be an outrage and one that was clearly from the Russian state. Using a nerve agent invented by Russians against a Russian defector well down on the priority list would fit the bill. Again, this book will not pose that question directly or answer it, but it leads one to ask the question.
One important issue that is directly addressed in the book is disinformation. The various ploys, wheezes, and outright lies spun by the Russian state get a bit of a look in The Skripal Files and the relatively weak attempts by the UK government to counter these efforts are given some space late in the book. Urban is quick to point out, rightly so, points at which UK officialdom gets its messaging wrong, leaving room for mistruths and alternative narratives to get a foothold. This whole situation is doubtless worthy of further efforts, but Urban does well to start the inquiry.
Finally, there is the aspect of Skripal’s family. Mr Urban describes this part of the narrative very well. The Russian state involved family members in their plot. First of all, by the nature of the timing of the attack, Yulia Skripal was targeted along with her father. It seems unlikely, even given some of the shambolic aspects of the GRU attack in Salisbury, that the Russians were unaware of Yulia’s presence that day. Further more, the use of Yulia’s cousin Viktoria to cause confusion and elicit information after the attack (described well on pages 266 and 267 of the book) are truly sinister. These are the tactics of organized crime groups, not nations.
I heartily recommend this book. Not only does it provide narrative about the recent incidents, it gives much needed background. While this interesting work may not be the definitive discussion of all of the issues raised by the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, I think it is the best starting point available at the moment.