Cloak and Dagger
Russian intelligence operations have taken a heavy hit recently. It is hard to evaluate the exact measure of things in the murky world of spies and counter-spies, but it appears that the Western spies have had extraordinary success in the subterranean battle.
The external, visible signs of the hit are less than mind-boggling. A group of Russian diplomats had been detained and deported after an attempt to learn what is cooking in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It had been claimed they were members of a GRU squad caught in flagrante while accessing Wi-Fi network; not exactly red-hand assassination stuff. The Russians denied even that; however, the claim is not specially damaging.
In a different development, two (separate but interacting) fronts for Western intelligence, Bellingcat and The Insider, claimed they have discovered the real identities of the two Russians accused by the Brits of involvement in the weird case of the alleged Skripal poisoning.
None of these achievements is important by itself. It makes sense for the Russians to make an effort and discover what is planned against them in the OPCW of which they are members. The Russian officials complained that the Western members excluded them from their deliberations and did not share their data, thus defeating the very reason for the OPCW’s existence. This is connected with the alleged Syrian chemical attacks and with the Skripal case, where the best Russian defence against ungrounded accusations came from clandestinely obtained sources.
If the OPCW would function as it should by its charter, the Russians would be notified officially that the Swiss lab had established that the samples proffered by the British as taken from Salisbury, could not be produced in Russia. But the Swiss played coy, and the Russians had to steal the very product they were entitled to by right. The OPCW did not reveal on its own initiative that the samples from Syria weren’t obtained by the OPCW officials in Syria, but passed through the unverifiable chain of the White Helmets network. Nor did it reveal that the chemical weapons seized in Douma had been made in England, in Salisbury.
If the Russian intelligence wouldn’t try and snoop in the OPCW labs and discussions they would be rightly accused by their superiors of wasting their budget and not earning their salaries.
Ditto discovering the identities of Salisbury agents. There is nothing that connected the two men with Skripal, or with alleged poisoning. There is not a single frame of endless CCTV videos that shows them near Skripal’s house. Even by the British version, they could not possibly cause harm to Mr Skripal as he had left his home before their arrival to the vicinity and didn’t come back at all.
And anyway nobody has had access to Mr and Miss Skripal since the alleged poisoning excepting for a call Miss Skripal had made to her aunt in Russia that practically debunked the official British story. If she had not had the courage to make this call while slipping the observance of British intelligence, she would probably be dead by now.
If we want to find out who could poison Mr and Miss Skripal, we may ask the Brits a simple question, they know the answer to: who took the picture of them in the restaurant just a few minutes before they fell ill? Who did they dine with? Why did they turn off their phones for this meeting? Could it be connected with the D-notice (UK government prohibition to publish certain material) issued regarding a certain Mr Pablo Miller, Sergei Skripal’s former MI6 handler and a dweller of Salisbury?
The UK government is reticent about the involvement of Mr Skripal in the production of the Golden Rain dossier on Trump by the ex-spy Mr Christopher Steele of Orbis Intelligence, though it may explain some mysterious points of the story. That would justify the interest of American and Russian intelligence in Salisbury.
However, the presence of Russian spies in Salisbury can be explained by its nearness to Porton Down, the secret British chemical lab and factory for manufacturing chemical weapons applied by the White Helmets in Syria in their false-flag operation in Douma and other places. It is possible that a resident of Salisbury (Mr Skripal?) had delivered samples from Porton Down to the Russian intelligence agents. This makes much more sense than the dubious story of Russians trying to poison an old ex-spy who did his stretch in a Russian jail.
Likewise, the Netherlands story of Russian hacking connected with the Dutch commission investigating the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 sounds realistic. The commission refused Russians access to its findings; this unfair dealing would force any intelligence service in the world to try and learn what had been found.
Not that it was of any use. The Dutch commission indeed found out the numbers of the missile that destroyed the jet; the Russians went through their documents and proved that this particular missile had been delivered to the Ukraine (when it was a Soviet republic) and remained there. A scoop! Now we know what happened with the jet – it was destroyed by the Ukrainians, presumably by mistake, like they downed another Russian airliner. However, the Western media ignored this scoop altogether. They decided to blame the crash on the Russians, and so they did to the end. Even if Russian intelligence were to find and deliver to the Hague the Ukrainian soldiers who operated the missile launcher, the Dutch, as loyal NATO members, would look other way.
This already happened regarding Syrian chemical attacks – the Russians and the Syrians delivered the very kids who unwillingly participated in the White Helmets’ staged and filmed ‘attack, directly to the OPCW. It was of no use. These guys are not after truth, they are just repeating the narrative they learned by rote.
Still, Russian intelligence worth of its name would be expected to try and obtain maximum findings in order to help the government to clear Russia’s name of unjust accusations. There revelations of Russian activity weren’t particularly dangerous or vicious. But while this subject had been discussed, a very painful and distressing development had been revealed.
The Western intelligence services have achieved incredible knowledge of whatever happens in Russia. They have obtained extensive databases of Russian everyday life from traffic violations and fines to passport scans, from residence registration to taxi requests, from messenger chats to emails, allowing them to trace persons and events in Russia with uncanny precision.
Many databases had been stolen and sold by small-time crooks; Western intelligences had made a concentrated effort to buy whatever is available on the black market; some bases were stolen and sold for crypto-currencies on the deep internet.
The most valuable databases had been sold by the crooks and/or traitors, while the Information Security Centre of FSB (ЦИБ ФСБ) led by colonel Sergei Mikhailov who is now being tried for the high treason, did nothing to stop the leak.
It appears that by cross-checking a Russian passport, the Western services can find the passport holders with a deficient or faulty tracking history, insufficiently legended, in the trade talk, who are likely to be members of secret services. People have history, while agents have legends; if these legends are faulty, they are traceable. It refers only to low-level agents, to the operatives of not-very-high-class, who are likely to travel West with this sort of documents. High-class agents have a full legend, that is complete personal (probably fictitious) history, and they probably use foreign passports.
By monitoring messengers, the Western services could discover people who had sent or received messages congratulating them with the traditional Day of the KGB operative. This is very common even in Facebook, though it is usually done by retired agents or people who had casual connection to the secret services.
Much of this debacle can be learned through Pavel Vrublevsky, a prominent internet operator and businessman (he created Chronopay, the Russian system for online payments) who had been described as ‘cybercriminal No. 1 in the world” by an American expert, Brian Krebs of the Spam Nation fame. Vrublevsky was accused by Colonel Mikhailov of breaking internet security and had been sentenced for two years of imprisonment but released from jail when his archenemy Mikhailov had been charged with treason. Vrublevsky denied Krebs’ accusations. In his view, Krebs works for a Western secret service, and he helped the traitor Mikhailov. I have no idea whether it is true or not; however, Vrublevsky is free while Mikhailov is in jail. Pavel Vrublevsky gave me his explanation of the recent developments in the Russian services especially for Unz.com.
Russia is unique by its lax internet security and confidentiality rules and practices. For years, all the databases of Russia have been stolen and sold, while ISC FSB did nothing (or little) to fight it. Vrublevsky thinks the FSB had been misled by the Western services and concentrated its efforts on fighting viruses, worms and Trojans, while it was a money-and-time-wasting enterprise. The stolen databases allowed the West to get almost an complete picture of lower-level Russian spies.
Vrublevsky thinks that British intelligence convinced the GRU (probably we should say that GRU is not called GRU anymore but GU, the Chief Directorate of the General Staff, but it hardly matters) that Mr Skripal wanted to return home to Russia. Probably they were told that Mr Skripal intended to bring some valuable dowry with him, including Porton Down data and the secrets of the Golden Rain dossier. It is possible that Skripal had been played, too; perhaps he indeed wanted to go back to Russia, the country he missed badly.
Two GRU agents, supposedly experts on extraction (they allegedly sneaked the Ukrainian president Yanukovych from Ukraine after the coup and saved him from lynching mob) were sent to Salisbury to test the ground and make preparations for Skripal’s return. As we had learned from videos and stills published by the Brits, the two men had been carefully followed from the beginning to the end. Meanwhile, British intelligence staged a ‘poisoning’ of Skripal and his daughter, and the two agents quickly returned home.
There is not a single man close to Russian intelligence who thinks that Skripal had actually been poisoned by the Russians. First, there was absolutely no reason to do it, and second, if the Russians would poison him, he would stay poisoned, like the Ukrainian Quisling Stepan Bandera was.
However, by playing this card, the British secret service convinced the Foreign Office to expel all diplomats who had contacts and connection to the exposed GRU agents. The massive expulsion of 150 diplomats caused serious damage to the Russian secret services.
Still, the Russians had no clue how the West had learned identities of so many diplomats connected to GRU. They suspected that there was a mole, and a turncoat who delivered the stuff to the enemy.
That is why Vladimir Putin decided to dare them. As he knew that the two men identified by the British service had no connection to the alleged poisoning, he asked them to appear on the RT in an interview with Ms Simonyan. By acting as village hicks, they were supposed to provoke the enemy to disclose its source. The result was unexpected: instead of revealing the name of a turncoat, the Belling Cat, a site used by the Western Secret Services for intentional leaks, explained how the men were traced by using the stolen databases. Putin’s plan misfired.
The Russian secret service is not dead. Intelligence services do suffer from enemy action from time to time: the Cambridge Five infiltrated the upper reaches of the MI-5 and delivered state secrets to Moscow for a long time, but the Intelligence Service survived. Le Carre’s novels were based on such a defeat of the intelligence. However they have a way to recover. Identity of their top agents remain secret, and they are concealed from the enemy’s eyes.
But in order to function properly, the Russians will have to clean their stables, remove their databases from the market place and keep its citizenry reasonably safe. Lax, and not-up-to-date agents do not apparently understand the degree the internet is being watched. Considering it should have been done twenty years ago, and meanwhile a new generation of Russians has came of age, perfectly prepared to sell whatever they can for cash, it is a formidable task.
There is an additional reason to worry. Such a massive operation against Russian agents and their contacts could signal forthcoming war. In normal circumstances, states do not reveal their full knowledge of enemy agents. It made president Putin worry; and he said this week: we’ll go to heaven as martyrs, the attackers will die as sinners. In face of multiple and recent threats, this end of the world is quite possible.