In March of last year, a 66-year-old man named Sergei Skripal was the target of an alleged Russian assassination attempt on UK soil. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer turned asset for the MI6, and his daughter were both exposed to a Soviet-era nerve agent called Novichock. The nerve agent very nearly killed them — and did kill a third party bystander.
As the investigation unfolded, two Russian intelligence agents were named as prime suspects in the attempted murder: Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov of Russia’s GRU. The GRU is often compared to America’s CIA, but that’s not quite accurate. The GRU is, in many ways, a covert arm of Russia’s military.
It seems likely, though, that those are not the agents’ real names — the very same names recently turned up in the French Alps, along with some 13 other Russian spies operating out of the Haute-Savoie department in the Alps. That’s right: A covert ring of Russian military intelligence officers have been operating out of the French Alps. It is now believed that the agents were using the Alps as the GRU’s rear base for covert operations in Europe.
While stories in Ian Fleming novels and Jason Bourne movies tend to depict the high stakes world of covert espionage as something akin to a superhero movie, the reality of covert operations usually tends to involve a bit more tact. So, the repeated exposure of Russian intelligence assets and assassins operating throughout Europe seems to indicate one of two likely possibilities: either Russia’s spies are generally bad at their job, or Russia simply doesn’t care all that much about exposure because denying foreign accusations has worked to great effect thus far: Aside from the expulsion of some diplomats and a few more sanctions on the pile, Russia has proven that it’s able to operate with near-impunity outside its borders.
“It’s good that our European partners are taking the Russian threat so seriously,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer with expertise in Europe and Russia, told NBC. “Russia behaves at times like an outlaw regime, attempting to kill dissidents abroad and fomenting unrest in European democracies. It takes the sustained efforts of European security services working together to counter this threat.”
Earlier this week, two more Russian diplomats were expelled from Germany after it was uncovered that Russian agents operating in Berlin had assassinated a Georgian citizen this past August. Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, was gunned down while walking through a park en route to a mosque. The assassin sped away on an electric bicycle. A short time later he ditched the bike, his weapon and the wig he was wearing into the nearby Spree River. According to German prosecutors, Khangoshvili had fought with a Georgian unit defending South Ossetia during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. He had been designated a “terrorist” by the Russian government.
In keeping with Russia’s apparent inability to keep their covert operations covert, the suspect was spotted disposing of the evidence by a number of witnesses who promptly contacted law enforcement. 48-year-old Vadim Sokolov, a Russian national, was taken into custody a short time later.
From there, it wasn’t hard to tie Sokolov back to the Russian government. Sokolov had arrived in Paris on August 17 from Moscow. He secured a visa by claiming to work for a firm out of St. Petersburg called Zao Rust. He then left Paris for Warsaw, where he allegedly made the six-hour drive to Berlin with the intent of killing Khangoshvili.
Investigators soon learned that Zao Rust only had one registered employee last year and wasn’t even considered an operational business at the time. The company’s fax number was actually associated with a different firm — one of the two maintained by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
More covert Russian operations have been exposed in Europe in recent months. These have included the discovery, arrest, and expulsion by Swiss and Dutch officials of a pair of Russian spies, who were caught while attempting to infiltrate the Swiss lab responsible for analyzing the Novichok toxin that was used in the Skripal assassination attempt. Two Russian-Estonian citizens (a military officer and his father) were also arrested last September for spying for the Russian government. Another Russian national was arrested the same month in Norway for unlawful intelligence gathering during an inter-parliamentary seminar. And in May of last year, Ukrainian officials even helped a journalist who was targeted by the Russian government, to fake his own death in order to avoid what they called another assassination attempt.
All of these embarrassments come alongside repeated indictments from the U.S. government pertaining to Russian cyber operations.
In each instance, Russia has denied any involvement in the cases brought up by these governments, often crediting an “anti-Russian conspiracy” for what they claim are “absurd” allegations.