Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia August 9, 2006. Picture taken August 9, 2006. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. Image Credit: REUTERS

In the intelligence world, assassinations — like the one which seems to have been attempted on the former spy Sergei Skripal — are generally regarded as unprofessional. But not in Russia. And especially not now.

During the Cold War, spies of all countries conformed to a series of unwritten rules, one of which meant that defectors (in either direction) would not be singled out for retribution. Thus, when the KGB chairman Yuri Andropov was asked for instructions by his subordinates who had discovered the home addresses of the defector Igor Gouzenko in Ontario, and another defector, Vladimir Petrov in Melbourne, he ordered that they should be left alone.

Admittedly, other targets were not always so lucky. The Romanians specialised in slipping plutonium dust into the desk-drawers of troublesome Radio Liberty journalists in Munich.

Having unwittingly ingested the toxin, they would succumb within months to virulent lung cancers. As the victims were usually heavy smokers, the murders went undetected until spy chief Ion Pacepa himself defected while on a visit to West Germany.

But today, elements in Russia seem to have torn up the established rule book, and a Russian law passed by the Duma in July 2006 authorises the extrajudicial elimination abroad of “extremists” — a term with a very wide definition. It is perhaps interpreted by the regime to encompass its political opponents as well as authentic moles who have sold the country’s secrets to Western intelligence agencies.

Four months after this controversial legislation was passed, in November 2006, two former KGB officers administered a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210 to the defector Alexander Litvinenko in a Mayfair hotel.

His alleged assailants, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, are protected from extradition by the Russian constitution, and Lugovoi has been elected to the Duma, which gives him immunity from prosecution even within the Russian Federation.

Soon after, the life of the Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky was saved at the last moment when he was approached in the lobby of London’s Park Lane Hilton by an armed Chechen, Movladi Atlangeriyev. The gunman was disarmed by the discreet intervention of police surveillance officers, questioned, and then unceremoniously deported. Berezovsky was to be found dead at his home in 2013. An inquest into his death recorded an open verdict.

A complaint by Oleg Gordievsky, the celebrated KGB officer exfiltrated from Moscow in 1985 hidden in the back of a British embassy Ford Sierra, that he has been the victim of a Russian attack in his new home in Surrey, was not pursued, in spite of the intervention of his friend, the retired MI5 Director-General Eliza Manningham-Buller. His health has been ruined, but no action was taken against the perpetrator. This absence of any significant consequences for assassins seems only to have emboldened them, and some recent attacks have been quite brazen. When a pair of GRU (foreign military intelligence agency) assassins were convicted of the murder in Qatar of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and his two bodyguards, with a bomb placed under their SUV, they were sent back to Moscow to serve life sentences.

When they arrived at Vnukovo airport they instead received a hero’s welcome and were released, having spent barely six months in a Doha jail. While in the custody, both men had implicated Russia’s defence minister as the person who had directed the entire operation, but even this admission caused only mild embarrassment in the Kremlin.

New phenomenon

Foreign political assassination in the UK is a relatively new phenomenon, and the resettlement and welfare personnel of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) are unused to the new threat. Defectors have always been a volatile commodity, and while some, such as Oleg Lyalin, adjust to their new life, others, such as the KGB officers Vladimir Kuzichkin and Viktor Makarov, found the process challenging. Both developed mental health issues, and Kuzichkin was once discovered stark naked in a motorway service station in Somerset, resulting in his immediate hospitalisation.

The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service acknowledges its duty of care to support and protect those who have risked their lives to provide the UK with valuable information, and these incidents, sometimes referred to as “. 38 retirement plans” (after the. 38 calibre pistol), reflect badly on its skills.

The months before an election in Russia are an especially dangerous period, when efforts could be on to attract the nationalist vote. This could also be playing to the natural constituents in the FSB security apparatus and the SVR, the foreign intelligence successor to the KGB.

The atmosphere in Moscow changes perceptibly, and usually loquacious KGB veterans exercise uncharacteristic discretion, if they answer their telephones at all. Resources in the intelligence field dry up until the polls are over. Then it is business as usual. In the meantime, however, these are dangerous days.

The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018

Nigel West is the author of Spycraft Secrets: An Espionage A-Z.