How Russia’s spies allegedly strong-armed their way into a UK visa before Skripal’s poisoning

The UK accused these two men, pictured in September, of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in March They were later identified as Russian intelligence agents. RT News
  • Russian intelligence agents intimidated a tech specialist into hacking Britain’s visa issuance system to secure tourist visas before Sergei Skripal’s poisoning this March, according to a new report.
  • Agents co-opted Vadim Mitrofanov in 2016 under duress and threatened his family with imprisonment and deportation, the report says.
  • While this story doesn’t indicate that Russia successfully managed to game the UK’s visa system, it is a tale of a long Russian game to hack other countries’ visa systems and learn about people’s potential travel plans.

Russian intelligence agents intimidated a tech specialist as early as 2016 into hacking the UK’s visa enrollment system to secure tourist visas before the poisoning of Sergei Skripal this March, a new report says.

Agents with the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency, promised to help a Russian tech specialist sort out his family’s immigration hurdles, and threatened his wife with jail and deportation, in exchange for hacking into Britain’s visa system, investigators at Bellingcat said in a report published on Friday.

In September the UK accused two Russian men of entering England on tourist visas to poison Skripal with military-grade nerve agent this March. The Kremlin claimed that the two men were tourists.

Bellingcat, a website dedicated to investigative journalism, later identified the two men as agents of Russia’s military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.

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According to Bellingcat, FSB agents recruited Vadim Mitrofanov, a Russian national who worked for a company that helped embassies process visa applications, under duress and asked him to breach the UK’s visa application system.

Mitrofanov, a Russian national, had been living in China when a Russian agent approached him in March 2016. He had been trying to organise Russian residency permits for his Mongolian wife and child, but had encountered numerous bureaucratic troubles.

Bellingcat also published audio footage purporting to capture Mitrofanov’s handler, identified as “Andrei,” threatening his family members with imprisonment:

In June 2016, Mitrofanov’s handler asked him if he could organise visas “for a couple of guys who need to visit the UK,” and to do so “without any review and background checks and without leaving any trace in the visa center,” Mitrofanov told Bellingcat.

It suggests that the Kremlin had been considering having its security agents enter the UK as early as 2016.

Bellingcat said this story does not “definitively prove” that Russia obtained the tourist visas through intimidating Vadim, but indicates a long game it has played to hack other countries’ visa systems and learn about people’s travel plans.

It also does not answer how Russia managed to get the men responsible for Skripal’s poisoning into the UK, as Mitrofanov’s story doesn’t prove that the FSB or any other Russian security agency successfully breached Britain’s visa issuance system.

The researchers said: “While our investigation does not definitively prove that Russian agencies were successful in these concrete efforts, it does paint a picture of a strategic, long-term Russian effort to compromise the visa issuance system, as well as to gather intelligence on potential travellers’ plans – both from Russia to Western Europe, and the other way around.”

Read Bellingcat’s full report here.