The head of MI6 says Russia broke one of the primary rules of espionage, and won’t be trusted again

Ricardo Ceppi/Getty ImagesRussian President Vladimir Putin.
  • The head of MI6 said Russia broke one of the primary rules of espionage by trying to assassinate double agent Sergei Skripal after he moved to Britain as part of a spy swap.
  • Alex Younger said the UK trusted the pardon Russia gave to Skripal, but after the attack on him – which the UK blamed on Russia’s GRU – all bets are off.
  • Spy swaps date back to the Cold War and rely on two nations trusting each other.
  • Younger warned Russia not to underestimate the UK and said the two nations are now in a “perpetual state of confrontation.”

The head of MI6 said Russia broke one of the primary rules of espionage and won’t be trusted again after it tried to assassinate a former Russian agent despite giving him away in a spy swap.

Alex Younger said British spies had to revise their assumptions about Moscow after Skripal was attacked with a deadly nerve agent, in an operation which Britain has pinned on Russia’s GRU spy agency.

Younger is the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6, and gave a speech to students at St. Andrews University in Scotland, which was reported by the Financial Times.

In the speech, Younger said the UK had partly trusted Russian President Vladimir Putin when Russia pardoned Skripal in 2010 in return for its own agents.

Younger said he and his agents assumed that Moscow’s spy swap “had meaning” and would be honored, but he said they revised their opinion in light of the Skripal attack.

He said, according to the Financial Times: “Mr. Skripal came to the UK in an American-brokered exchange, having been pardoned by the president of Russia and, to the extent we assumed that had meaning, that is not an assumption that we will make again.”

Skripal was part of an ambitious spy-swap deal with the US in 2010, when four Russian agents who had betrayed their country were released by the Kremlin in exchange for 10 Russian spies in the US.

The UK accused Russia of being behind the attack on Skripal in March 2018, a charge the Kremlin denies.

Novichok, the nerve agent used in the poisoning, has been traced to Russia, and the two men accused by the UK of attempting to assassinate Skripal have been identified by investigative journalism site Bellingcat as GRU officers.

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Spy swaps

Spy swaps are understandings between the West and Russia that date back to the of the Cold War.

Jonathan Eyal, international director at think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told Business Insider in March that the safety of the spies is typically put at the forefront of the exchange.

“Spying agencies try to maintain a gentleman’s agreement that these people are beyond retribution,” he said.

The goal is typically to have them go smoothly so more spy swaps can be done in the future.

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Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, told Business Insider that the Russians take spy swaps “very seriously” because of the concern that “no one will ever do a swap with them again” if they break faith.

He said if Russia had really wanted to kill Skripal, the country could have executed him in prison.

So Russia would have needed to believe it had a good reason to attempt to assassinate Skripal on UK soil.

“The idea that they would do it for fun or anything less serious is to be discounted,” Eyal said.

A state of confrontation

Speaking on Monday, Younger said Russia was in a “perpetual state of confrontation” with the UK and warned the Kremlin not to underestimate the UK’s determination to fight attempts to interfere with its way of life.

“The conclusion [Russia has] arrived at is they should apply their capabilities across the whole spectrum to … our institutions and our partnerships,” Younger said.

“Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk.”

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