In the so called Karla trilogy, John le Carré alludes to Moscow rules in a dialogue between Smiley and Strickland. Moscow rules are invoked as Soviet agent is killed in Hampstead in London by Soviet assassins.
This episode came to mind when Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was found catatonic and unconscious on a park-bench in Salisbury. Skripal – formerly a Colonel in Russian military Intelligence – was arrested and convicted on treason in 2004. In 2010 he was released and came to Britain as part of a spy exchange with the US.
Skripal’s wife died of cancer in Britain in 2012 and his son, 43, died during a visit to St Petersburg last year, and now maybe the father and his daughter are dying too.
This is not the first case of Russian (and earlier Soviet) playing by ‘Moscow rules’ in the UK, so one can be forgiven for wondering what’s happening. The British being British is of course going by the rule-book (not the Moscow one obviously) and haven’t said anything incriminating about Russia. The investigation is on-going to find a cure for Skripal and his daughter, but their conditions are critical.
So why does this keep happening in the UK? One reason put forth is the fact that the British were such active players during the cold war and that is probably one reason as to why a disproportional number of killings have taken place on British soil. The effortless ease with which Soviet secret services slipped into Russian ones, made this old history (and animosity) between the two countries easy to transfer to new political settings.
But the reason for the many assassinations is not just historical. At many periods it has also been due to the political and diplomatic reluctance of many British governments to match the professionalism and determination of their intelligence services with appropriate sanctions following acts of murder on their soil.
Despite the clear involvement of Russian operatives with links to the Kremlin in the 2006 death by poisoning of former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, the British government didn’t conduct a public inquiry or demand any explanations from Russia, formal or otherwise. Litvinenko was poisoned by polonium, a radioactive substance produced in nuclear reactors and not available to any regular assassins on the open market.
Britain also preferred not to delve too deeply into other cases in which oligarchs with information on the dealings of Russia’s leadership died mysteriously on its territory, as in the cases of Boris Berezovsky in 2013 and Alexander Perepilichny in 2012. A theory is that the City of London’s addiction to the billions deposited in its banks by post-Soviet oligarchs (many of them close to Putin) has had a dampening effect.
Regardless, it’s interesting how the British handling of ‘Moscow rules’ compares to what the Israelis have done. No ex-spy, Oligarch or other dissident from Russia has ever been killed in Israel, despite the many different individuals from both Russia and its far and near enemies (such as the Ukraine for example) in the country, often simultaneously. It’s hard not to think about the clear red lines put down by Jerusalem in dealings with Russia’s involvement in Syria as a clue to the kind of relations Jerusalem and Moscow have. These ground-rules were laid down some time ago and here is, perhaps, a model for relations worth exploring in London as well.