In his new book, The Skirpal Files, Mark Urban delves into the case of Sergei Skripal, the complex and mysterious victim of 2018’s most explosive news story.
Here, we ask him about his most surprising discoveries whilst writing the book and what he feels the future holds for political relations.
What was the most surprising discovery you made while writing the book?
The thing I found most surprising - and disturbing - was the case of a second GRU officer from the Madrid station who was recruited by a western intelligence agency just after he was. This man, a naval captain, was arrested in 2004, a few months before Skripal himself, and suffered a grizzly fate. It was a real eye opener to me because I hadn't realised that something like this could happen to a suspect in custody in Moscow, and it underlined that Skripal himself was probably in mortal danger from the moment the authorities felt sure of his own treason.
In light of these events, what do you think the future holds for the political relationship between the West and Russia?
It's never easy to generalise about this because the relationship between two big countries is always so complex and multi-faceted. So it was quite possible for England to play World Cup football in Russia even while detectives from Scotland Yard were homing in on prime suspects who they believed worked for the Russian state. And of course thousands of people a week travel to and fro for business, tourism, or cultural exchanges.
At the same time nobody can ignore the seriousness of what happened in Salisbury. A mother of three, Dawn Sturgess, died and four other people were hit with non-fatal doses of nerve agent poisoning. If you buy Scotland Yard's version - which by the way is now substantially backed up by the work of independent journalists in Russia - then the GRU (Russian military intelligence) sent two officers to Salisbury to carry out an assassination using a weapon banned by international treaty, and which their country denies possessing. Even if the Kremlin has no intention of handing these men over to the British police, this will not go away. There could be charges leveled against additional Russians (those involved in reconnaissance and the overall command of the mission), further ones against 'Petrov' and Boshirov' relating to Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charley Rowley, and further US sanctions against Russia, for breaching the Chemical Weapons Convention, are expected next month.
Time Magazine calls The Skripal Files "an account that reads as if it were ripped from a Cold-War spy novel." do you agree?
Inevitably, when we see something like Salisbury, we think of thrillers and spy fiction. It is a remarkable story, but it is also one about the reality of ruined lives.
Do you feel that this case is a true/representative example of the involvement of spies in modern power politics?
What the Skripal affair marks is a new willingness to take risks that seems greater than that we saw in the Cold War. It's true the KGB were implicated in the poisoning of several defectors or dissidents back then, but both the Skripal and Alexander Litvinenko (2006) cases seem to be examples of something more brutal. It’s a willingness on the part of Russian security agencies to take big risks in order to send a message. As we have seen in recent weeks, whoever signed off the Salisbury attack, it's hard to think that they could have anticipated these consequences.
What made you choose this case as the subject of your next book?
I had been doing research on this subject for a long time. In fact I started trying to research the book in the summer of 2016. It wasn't easy, for a whole lot of reasons, not least the demand of my day job, covering world events from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, you name it. So I kept parking the project, and did so even after talking to Sergei last summer. But of course once I heard the news of 5th March I knew I had to write, and quickly.
Are there any elements of Skirpal’s story that aren’t included in the book that you found particularly interesting during your meetings with him?
No, I've tried to convey everything significant that I learned about him. Every now and then I remember an odd tidbit, something said casually when I wasn't taking notes, but of course I've put in everything I felt was central to the story.
How do you think the case may unfold from here?
There's so many things that could happen now. Yulia Skripal might go back to Russia, she did say earlier in the summer that that's what she wanted to do. She or her father might give interviews or write their own book. Of course the investigation could produce new revelations also. And there is every possibility of further sanctions.