The Times of London as usual is somewhat more measured.
Firstly it reports the interesting fact (based on a report drawn from the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets) that Yulia Skripal’s Russian fiancé is refusing to reply to her calls, causing her deep distress
The fiancé of Yulia Skripal, who was poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, works at an organisation with links to the Russian security services and has gone into hiding.
Stepan Vikeev, 30, has not been seen since Yulia, 33, and her father, Sergei, 66, a former Russian military intelligence officer, were poisoned last month, the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper reported.
Mr Vikeev has not answered Ms Skripal’s calls since she was discharged from hospital and deleted all his social media accounts after the attack, for which the government has blamed Russia…..
The newspaper said that Ms Skripal was “hysterical” when Mr Vikeev failed to return her telephone calls.
This is curious since the Russians by their own account have been doing all they can to contact Yulia Skripal only to be prevented from doing so by the British. Given that this is so one would expect the Russian authorities – if they are involved – to be encouraging Stepan Vikeev to reply to Yulia Skripal’s calls, and not to turn them away.
However far more interesting than this tidbit of information is news about a supposed breakthrough in the case which is discretely tacked on to the end of the article
The reports of Mr Vikeev’s disappearance come as the police and intelligence agencies have reportedly identified key suspects for the Salisbury attack, in part by searching flight passenger lists in and out of the UK, drawing on CCTV footage in Salisbury and using car numberplate recognition cameras.
I will say at this point that in my opinion the whole Times of London article about Stepan Vikeev is a cover for the real information in the article, which is the paragraph which I have just quoted. Frankly, it looks to me like an attempt by the British to signal to the Russians that they know – or think they know – who were the assassins who tried to kill Sergey Skripal.
For a more colourful account of what the British know or think they know about the case we have to turn to The Sunday People, whose story appeared on 22nd April 2018, the day before the article appeared in The Times of London. Its article is written in the usual breathless style of contemporary British tabloid journalism
Counter terror police have identified a Russian assassin believed to be connected to the Salisbury poisonings.
In a sensational new development the Sunday People can disclose that officers suspect he is a 54-year-old former FSB spy – codename Gordon.
The man is thought to use the cover name Mihails Savickis as well as two other aliases.
But police fear he has already flown back to Russia and they may never get the chance to question him.
Detectives believe there was a team of six behind the novichok chemical attack on double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33.
Our revelation follows reports that Britain’s intelligence services have compiled a list of key suspects involved in last month’s attack in the Wiltshire city.
Gordon’s cover name emerged during nearly five hours of questioning by police in London this week of KGB defector Boris Karpichkov, 59.
Boris told the Sunday People how he and Gordon’s paths crossed in the early 1990s.
The two men knew each other when Karpichkov was a major in the FSB, the KGB’s successor, in Latvia.
Gordon was a subordinate of Boris’s.
“He was a very intelligent, educated, ambitious and ruthless person,” Boris said today.
“He was handsome and personable and was quickly able to win a stranger’s trust.”
Boris said Gordon was trained in martial arts and specialised in ju jitsu. He went to university where he gained a law degree.
Our exclusive picture of the man police want to talk to – handed to us by Boris – shows the wanted spy three decades ago.
He is 5ft 9in with no distinguishing marks, fiercely intelligent and with a law degree from Latvia’s State University in Riga.
Gordon has used the cover of a successful businessman in the security industry. He was a captain in the KGB before joining the FSB after the Cold War ended.
He is on the FSB’s Officers of Active Reserve list, a kind of spy territorial army called out for special operations including “wet jobs” as Russian spooks like to call their assassinations.
And he is known to have murdered at least one man when he shot an organised crime boss in Latvia during the 1990s.
Gordon’s cover name was revealed during nearly five hours of questioning by police on Monday of Karpichkov, who is on the same FSB hitlist as the Skripals.
The ex-spy believes that if Gordon was involved in the Skripal attack he could have been leader of the special ops group carrying it out because of his seniority.
The two men knew each other when Karpichkov was an FSB major in Latvia – then part of the Soviet Union – and Gordon was a subordinate.
The codename Gordon was given to the spy by his FSB bosses.
It is not unusual to choose British names. Notorious double agent Kim Philby was codenamed Stanley.
Our exclusive revelation comes a day after it was reported that police and intelligence agencies have identified key suspects in the attempted assassination of Sergei and his daughter Yulia.
Counter-terrorism police are reportedly trying to build a case against “persons of interest”.
The breakthrough came after a search of flight manifests in and out of the UK yielded specific names in the hunt for the Skripals’ would-be assassins. Police have also drawn on extensive CCTV footage in Salisbury.
But officers know it is unlikely they will ever be able to bring anyone to justice.
The Sunday People article comes complete with an identikit picture of ‘Gordon’ – the reputed Russian master assassin – which is the picture used as a caption for this article.
It is quite clear that the two articles – the one in The Times of London of 23rd April 2018 and the one in The Sunday People of 22nd April 2018 – draw on the same sources, which quite obviously are the British authorities.
What is one to make of all this?
Frankly ‘Gordon’ aka ‘Mihails Savickis’ sounds just a bit too much like a Russian James Bond to be wholly believable. Note that he is said to be “handsome, personable, very intelligent, educated, ambitious and ruthless” and that he is also an expert in ju-itsu. The only discordant note is that at 54 he seems a little too old for the part. The identikit picture of him is however ridiculous.
More to the point the “evidence” upon which these claims of a breakthrough are based seems incredibly tenuous.
It looks as if the British authorities have been spending the last few weeks combing through the names and photos of individuals who have come and gone from Britain and comparing them with photos of people caught on CCTV wandering around Salisbury around the time that Sergey and Yulia Skripal were poisoned. On that basis a number of individuals – or possibly photos of individuals – have been selected as showing possible suspects.
The possibilities of error are obvious, and I would add that this procedure neither directly links the individuals so identified with the crime itself nor does it prove that they were acting on behalf of the Russian authorities. At best the individuals concerned are – as they are described in The Sunday People article – “persons of interest” whom the police would want to interview rather than actual “suspects”.
As for ‘Gordon’ aka ‘Mihailis Savickis’, the identikit picture suggests that he is was not one of the people allegedly caught on CCTV in Salisbury and his reputed connection to the crime has been largely inferred from the evidence of former defectors like Boris Karpichkov who is named in The Sunday People article. Probably he is a real person though the James Bond qualities he has been given suggest that a certain amount of fantasy has been at work.
These nebulous claims about possible suspects in the Skripal case come alongside two articles, by Craig Murray and by Ben Macintyre in The Times of London (the latter a writer on intelligence matters) which suggest continuing doubts in Britain about Russian state involvement in the case.
Craig Murray – whose reporting of the Skripal case has been consistently reliable as well as outstanding – sees in the latest statements by British officialdom evidence of doubts about the theory of Russian state involvement in the Skripal case
Well-placed FCO sources tell me it remains the case that senior civil servants in both the FCO and Home Office remain very sceptical of Russian guilt in the Skripal case. It remains the case that Porton Down scientists have identified the chemical as a “novichok-style” nerve agent but still cannot tie its production to Russia – there are many other possibilities. The effort to identify the actual perpetrator is making no headway, with the police having eliminated by alibi the Russian air passenger on the same flight as Julia Skripal identified as suspicious by MI5 purely on grounds of the brevity of their stay.
That senior civil servants do not regard Russian responsibility as a fact is graphically revealed in this minute from head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, sent to officials following the attack on Syria. Note the very careful use of language:
Their work was instrumental in ensuring widespread international support for the Government’s position on Russian responsibility for the Salisbury attack
This is very deliberate use of language by Sir Jeremy. Exactly as I explained with the phrase “of a type developed by Russia” about the nerve agent, you have to parse extremely carefully what is written by the senior civil service. They do not write extra phrases for no reason.
Sir Jeremy could have simply written of Russian responsibility as a fact, but he did not. His reference to “the government’s position on Russian responsibility” is very deliberate and an acknowledgement that other positions are possible. He deliberately refrains from asserting Russian responsibility as a fact. This is no accident and is tailored to the known views of responsible civil servants in the relevant departments, to whom he is writing.
As for Ben Macintyre, he has this to say
Russia has so far come up with more than 30 narratives for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. It is a classic demonstration of the Stalinist disinformation technique known as maskirovka, or “little masquerade”, which is designed to sow confusion and uncertainty.
The British narrative, by contrast, remains fairly simple: Russia was behind the attack, which was carried out using high-grade, pure novichok, the Russian-made nerve agent. “Only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals . . . it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible,” wrote Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s national security adviser, in a letter to Nato.
But behind the logical assertion of overall Russian guilt lie a host of possibilities and unanswered questions: who administered the poison, what was the level of Kremlin authorisation, and why now?
On March 12, a week after the poisoning, Theresa May offered just two possibilities: “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
Between those two poles lie an array of possibilities, in which the assassins were encouraged, facilitated, prompted, armed, nudged or protected, to an as yet undetermined extent, by Russia. There are several reasons why the attempted murder does not look like a typical Russian “wet job”, or mokroe delo, a state-authorised hit. For a start, it didn’t work and was done in a way that seems remarkably sloppy. The poison was easily traceable to Russia. It took out a member of the target’s family, something Russian (and Soviet) assassins have traditionally avoided.
The idea that Vladimir Putin authorised the attack as a pre-election poll boost is fanciful. He was never in danger of anything other than an overwhelming victory. Moreover, a specific order risks being traced back to the top, something Putin is very good at avoiding.
Macintyre then goes on to speculate at inordinate length that though the Russian authorities may not have actually ordered the attack they are covering up for whoever did.
That is of course pure speculation which is based on no fact.
Nonetheless it is interesting that a well placed and well informed British writer on intelligence matters like Ben Macintyre is expressing doubts in The Times of London about the theory of Russian state involvement in the Skripal case.
Frankly, it looks to me as if despite all the claims to the contrary the police investigation of the Skripal case has made little actual progress. The British seem to have little more knowledge of who carried out the attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal and why than they did when the investigation began. Could it possibly be because they are looking in the wrong place?