02 April 2018

The Skipral affair: questions of motive

In John Le Carré’s spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, published in 1974 (and made all the more memorable for the TV series based on it 1977), a Soviet double agent, Bill Hayden, has virtually gained control of the British secret service. This undeniably brilliant mole, eventually unmasked by George Smiley, is about to be sent back to Moscow, to avoid the scandal that would result if the revelation of his infiltration of ‘The Circus’ became known.

While Hayden is awaiting his return to the USSR, he is shot in the outdoor section of his compound, by retired British agent Jim Prideaux. Hayden had been Prideaux’s hero and – as he thought – close friend. But as a result of Hayden’s betrayal Prideaux had been captured, tortured and half-crippled. Hayden had subsequently secured his return to Britain, but this counted for nothing: for Prideaux, an honoured retirement in Moscow was too good for him.

Sergei Skipral is reported to have given over the names of many Russian agents to his British spy-masters – a figure of 300 has been quoted. What happened to all those agents whose cover was blown? Where did they finish up, how were they treated, and by whom, in what countries? Might there have been a Soviet equivalent of Prideaux among them, long determined to take his revenge on Skipral, for himself and perhaps for fellow former agents?

But then, how and why was a Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok (if that is what it was), chosen as the weapon? Was it, like Polonium in the Litvinenko case, because it could effect an assassination unseen? How could it have been obtained – it would surely have required collusion by a state or other agent with access to a supply of it? And what about motive? It has been suggested that the use of Novichok conveys a message, of the long and ruthless reach of the KGB and perhaps of the Russian president himself. Or was the use of a chemical weapon intended – very crudely – to point suspicion at the UK chemical weapons establishment, at Porton Down, which is near Salisbury?

Or, to be still more speculative, was the choice of Novichok intended to convey a more specific meaning? Might Skipral’s former activities as a double-agent have been in some way linked to chemical weapons, even to Novichok or Porton Down? Was his ‘punishment’, in some mafia-like way, intended to fit what was seen by some as his rather special crime?

Le Carré’s fictional narrative of agents and double-agents may have grasped the psychological and political complexities of this hidden world far better than the uninformative account of motives offered by the British government, as justification for the renewal of a Cold War with Russia.

Perhaps life, in this case, has imitated art.