Now, on the anniversary of that fateful and ever-mystifying day, I'll attempt to track some of the activities of the Initiative's parent, the Institute for Statecraft, and other key figures and organizations directly and indirectly connected to the body in the years immediately prior.
Troublingly, the information collected here inevitably represents but a negligible fragment of a much wider clandestine picture. The full extent of the British state's sinister and long-running secret machinations leading up to the Salisbury incident certainly isn't ascertainable at this time, and may well never be.
In July 2014, Institute for Statecraft ‘senior research fellow' Victor Madeira wrote an article for the organization's website, Russian Subversion — Haven't we been here before?. In it, he suggested that far from a "new type of warfare", the West's tussle with Russia in the wake of the Maidan coup was "actually only the latest chapter in a 100-year-old playbook the Bolsheviks called active measures", albeit "modernised to exploit the speed and reach of 21st-century mass/social media".
After attempting to link various tactics employed by the Soviet Union to the modern day, Madeira somewhat chillingly concludes the piece with a quote from Ronald Lindsay, UK ambassador to Germany, who in February 1927 urged Whitehall to realise they were engaged in a "new kind of war" with the then-burgeoning Soviet Union.
"Anti-subversive measures could not be gradual; they had to be part of a package of 'economic boycott, breach of diplomatic relations' as well as 'propaganda and counter-propaganda, pressure on neutrals'. He argued a diplomatic breach with Moscow would at least turn 'the present peculiar struggle into an armed conflict of the old-fashioned sort' that Great Britain and the West could win," Madeira records.
A document authored by the academic — who 2010 — 2014 tutored and lectured at Cambridge under former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove — in January 2015 (Russian Federation Sanctions) makes clear he, and presumably his Institute employers, support Lindsay's strategy and objectives.
The file sets out a number of "potential levers" for achieving a number of "main aims", including "peace with Ukraine", the "return" of Crimea, "behaviour change" and/or "regime change" — for, much to Madeira's evident chagrin, the wave of sanctions imposed upon Russian individuals and businesses the previous March weren't having a sufficiently deleterious impact on the Kremlin, or the Russian people.
"[Russia] is not a ‘normal' country in most senses of the word. Crucially, Russians see life and the world very differently from us…Russians are not nearly as driven by economic and financial considerations…For most Russians, daily life has long been a struggle (not least for survival). Not having Western goods and services will not necessarily be much of an issue in the medium to long-term," he wrote.
Moreover, and perhaps worst of all in Madeira's mind, President Vladimir Putin — someone who "survived abysmal post-WW2 conditions" and "[believes] nothing the West can do is worse than what [he's] already endured in life" — remains popular among the Russian public due to "the chaos" of the 1990s and for having "restored stability, prosperity and pride".
"Fear of renewed uncertainty and chaos…keeps Russians in check", he writes — as a result, "driving a wedge between Russians and [their] government is key."
The bullet-pointed "levers" that make up the bulk of the document span areas including ‘diplomacy', ‘finance', ‘security', ‘technology', ‘industry', ‘military', and even ‘culture', and include; suspending or expelling Russia from "G8, WTO…and similar organisations"; "[expanding] existing sanctions regimes to anyone helping [Russia] break them"; "[arresting] every known RF agent — not least ‘agents of influence'"; "banning RF delegates" from a variety of international fora, "[advocating the] view RF [is] untrustworthy of hosting [international sporting events]; "[banning] Russian companies from launching IPOs in [the] West"'; asset freezes and "visa bans" for the "top 100 RF government officials and [their] immediate families"; "[sanctioning] RF media"; and much, much more.
Certain "levers" — such as suspending visits by the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets to Western countries — are baffling, while others — for instance "repatriating" the children of Russian government studying abroad, or "[increasing] scrutiny" of Russian religious organizations in Western countries — appear wanton and excessive, if not outright barbarous.
However, one of Madeira's suggestions, about which he was apparently so enthusiastic he mentioned it thrice - "simultaneously [expelling] every RF intelligence officer and air/defence/naval attache from as many countries as possible (global ‘Operation Foot')" - is especially striking.
Operation Foot saw 105 Soviet officials deported from the UK in September 1971 at the behest of then-Prime Minister Edward Heath, the largest expulsion of foreign state personnel by any government in history. Eerily, several mainstream media outlets would reference the historic mass defenestration when Whitehall successfully corralled 26 countries into expelling over 150 Russian diplomatic in response to the Salisbury incident, 27 March 2018.
On 12 October 2016 Institute for Statecraft chief Chris Donnelly met with retired senior UK military official General Richard Barrons, Joint Forces Command chief 2013 — 2016. Their discussion was incendiary.
"We have led comfortable lives since the end of the Cold War. Wars have been away matches on our terms, with resources we have chosen to apply. Our institutions are now failing to deliver or being bypassed. Our world system is being challenged, by Russia, China…the power of initiative and decision is ebbing away from the West. [The] US can no longer protect us," the document's introduction states.
As 50 percent of the UK's energy and 40 percent of its food is "from abroad", the country "has vital interests in having the ability to engage globally, but that engagement will no longer be on our terms alone". However, while in recent wars "the opposition had no peer capabilities and could pose no military threat" to the UK, the conflicts "have not required the full mobilisation of the military or any motivation of civilian society" and "given us the impression we can afford war at two percent GDP", despite the UK needing "£7 billion just to our current force up to effectiveness".
Moreover, "mixed success" in these conflicts is said to have "left a bad aftertaste" with the British public and politicians, leaving them with "no appetite for intervention". As a result, UK armed forces "cannot themselves speak out and say ‘we are broken'…as that would breach the rules of democratic control".
Barrons goes on to despair that the subordination of the military to civil servants and ministers in the Ministry of Defence means "the military do not do policy" — a state of affairs he believes must be radically changed, with the armed forces removed from government control and transformed into "an independent body outside politics".
"Government is living in denial…We need discussion and debate as to how Russia can be managed and deterred. We need to deal with Russia by doing things that are serious…If no catastrophe happens to wake people up and demand a response, then we need to find a way to get the core of government to realise the problem and take [the military] out of the political space. We will need to impose changes over the heads of vested interests…[we] must either generate the debate or wait for something dreadful to happen to shock us into action. We must generate an independent debate outside government…there is not a moment to be lost," Barrons concludes.
Barrons' fears of a loss of US military protection were no doubt widespread within the British establishment — for some time, US Presidential candidate Donald Trump had been questioning the necessity of NATO, advocating a protectionist and insular ‘America first' agenda in respect of world affairs.
Likewise, Trump's repeated suggestion of improved relations between Washington and Moscow should he become President were unquestionably unwelcome in many quarters — not least, of course, the offices of the Institute for Statecraft. It's perhaps unsurprising then the organisation played a pivotal role in kickstarting ‘RussiaGate'.
The month after Donnelly's meeting with Barrons, and mere weeks after Trump's shock election victory, Andrew Wood — UK ambassador to Russia 1995 — 2000, and a member of the Institute's ‘expert team' — was a delegate at the eighth annual Halifax International Security Forum in Canada. Senator John McCain was also in attendance, and the pair would speak privately on the event's sidelines about allegations of Trump's collusion with the Russian state, in particular, the claims of former MI6 operative Christopher Steele, and his ‘Trump-Russia' dossier.
How and why McCain and Wood met, and precisely what they discussed, isn't remotely clear — Wood has offered several wildly divergent accounts of the event since, variously suggesting the meeting was entirely chance and initiated by McCain due to the issue "being very much in the news", that he approached McCain due to his personal concerns after being shown the dossier by Steele, and that he was actively "instructed" by Steele to relay the dossier's contents to the Senator, without having actually seen a copy in full.
In any event, as a result of their conversation, the Senator dispatched his aide David Kramer, former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration, to meet with Steele in London and discuss the dossier's contents, and arrange for a copy to be sent to Washington. On 9 December, McCain met then-FBI Director James Comey and provided him with the dossier, which Comey then circulated across all US intelligence agencies. It would reach the desk of outgoing President Barack Obama and several senior members of Congress in the first week of January 2017.
This development would be reported 10 January by CNN — the article stated the dossier suggested Russian operatives possessed "compromising personal and financial information" about Trump, but the outlet refrained from publishing specific details as the contents hadn't been "independently corroborated".
CNN breaking cover — the dossier had been an "open secret" among US journalists for some time by that point — would provide BuzzFeed News with the 'public interest' defense it required to justify publishing the dossier, which it did 11 January, despite acknowledging its contents were "unverified, and potentially unverifiable", and contained "clear" factual errors.
In the days afterward, the publication was severely criticised by many other media outlets — Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan called the dossier "scurrilous allegations dressed up as an intelligence report meant to damage Donald Trump" — and the ethics of publishing unsubstantiated information offered by entirely anonymous sources was hotly debated.
However, these misgivings were quickly silenced, thanks in no small part to a number of esteemed 'experts' who vouched for Steele's credibility in the media — the earliest, most enthusiastic and prominent being none other than Wood himself. He would describe Steele as "very professional and thorough in what he does", and "a very competent, professional operator" who wouldn't "make things up", among other effusive plaudits.
It would take months for Wood to reveal he wasn't merely 'familiar' with Steele, but the pair were in fact long-time friends — and moreover he was an "associate" of Steele's firm (what form this relationship takes, and whether Wood receives any remuneration from Orbis, remains uncertain). Conversely, his association with the Institute for Statecraft has never been acknowledged by the mainstream media, and would never have been known if it wasn't for the leak of the organization's internal files in November 2018.
The leak also revealed that in March 2017, the Integrity Initiative submitted a bid for Ministry of Defense funding — among its key performance indicators achieving a "tougher stance in government policy towards Russia", the publication of "more information in the media on the threat of Russian active measures", the growth of its cluster network "across Europe" and "greater awareness in all areas of society of the threat posed by Russian active measures to UK's democratic institutions".
Russ to Judgement
BuzzFeed would again be used as a conduit for virulently anti-Russian propaganda in June, when it published a series of articles — From Russia With Blood - documenting 14 ‘suspicious deaths' in Britain it claimed were potential or likely assassinations carried out by Russian "security services or mafia groups", which UK authorities somehow failed to properly investigate.
The investigation caused something of a sensation, landing BuzzFeed in the running for a variety of prestigious journalism awards, including the Pulitzer and Orwell prizes — Investigations Editor Heidi Blake, who led the series, said her team's work had cemented the outlet as a "major force in global news".
However, examination of the seven articles offers much reason for scepticism. First and foremost, suggestions of possible Russian involvement in the deaths hinge almost entirely on the accusations of anonymous intelligence sources, without supporting documentation of any kind. In fact, the pieces often contain information directly contradicting the notion a featured individual was even murdered, let alone by Russians.
For instance, the third installment, The Man Who Knew Too Much, delved into the case of Dr. Matthew Puncher, a UK radiation scientist who'd been conducting work at a Russian nuclear facility, and was found stabbed to death in his kitchen in February 2016.
BuzzFeed notes Puncher's wife Kathryn told investigators her husband tried to hang himself with a computer cable the the week prior, and Detective Constable Rachel Carter, who inspected the scene, told the inquest "there was no sign of a struggle, none of the furniture had been knocked over, and all the blood belonged to Puncher", and she was "satisfied" he'd committed suicide as "all the information told us he was very depressed and no-one in his family seemed particularly surprised he had taken his own life".
However, BuzzFeed had other ideas, stating "four American intelligence officials…believe he was assassinated". Alternatively, a former senior Scotland Yard counter-terror officer unconnected to the case was quoted as suggesting — also anonymously — the Russian state could have given Puncher drugs to "create depression" and precipitate his suicide.
The fourth installment — The Secrets Of The Spy In The Bag — deals with Gareth Williams, the GCHQ codebreaker seconded to MI6 who died in a Pimlico flat owned by the spying agency in August 2010 and is similarly dubious in the extreme.
Williams' demise is unambiguously mysterious — his decomposing naked body was found in a padlocked sports bag in the bath, although no fingerprints or traces of his DNA were found on the rim of the bathtub, bag, bag's zip, or padlock, and an inquest ruled his death to be "unnatural and likely to have been criminally mediated".
— dan barker (@danbarker) March 12, 2018
Ironically, much of the article's content raises serious questions about the role of Williams' employer in his death. For instance, BuzzFeed notes he'd been dead for around 10 days by the time his body was found, but astoundingly neither GCHQ nor MI6 had alerted authorities to his absence from work. It would take his sister informing GCHQ Williams was missing at 11:30 am GMT on 23 August for the agency to contact police — albeit five hours later.
The outlet also records how in the ensuing investigation, police were prevented from interviewing Williams' colleagues at MI6 or reviewing relevant documents, and forced to rely upon officers from national counter-terrorism squad SO15, which took no formal statements from witnesses, and passed on only anonymised briefing notes to their Metropolitan counterparts.
Conversely, BuzzFeed fails to mention coroner Dr. Fiona Wilcox ruling involvement of SIS staff in Williams' death was a legitimate line of inquiry for police, instead again relying on the anonymous US intelligence quartet's unsubstantiated claims that Williams had been tracing international money-laundering routes used by organised crime groups to blame his probable murder on the Kremlin, and/or Russian gangsters.
The eponymous investigation — focusing on the suicide of Scot Young, an associate of oligarch Boris Berezovsky — is perhaps the series' most puzzling, for more reasons than one. Young — a corrupt tycoon with clear criminal connections — lost all his money on a failed property endeavor, spent time in prison for contempt of court, and endured a costly divorce battle among other crippling personal calamities, and died after falling from the window of his fourth-floor apartment in London.
Such a disastrous litany — and doctors' appraisal of him as "paranoid, with a manic flavour…[and a] complex delusional belief system" — would surely make Young an at least potential candidate for suicide watch, and indeed police concluded he'd taken his own life.
Three of his associates, Paul Castle, Robbie Curtis, and Johnny Elichaoff likewise "experienced dramatic financial [collapses]" in which they lost all their potentially ill-gotten gains, and subsequently took their own lives — Castle and Curtis both jumped in front of oncoming trains, while Elichaoff leaped off the roof of a London shopping centre.
Yet again though, the word of anonymous US intelligence officials is sufficient to perk BuzzFeed's suspicions about all their deaths, the unnamed operatives saying Russia could have "engineered" their suicides "through manipulation and intimidation tactics".
In 2007, covert recordings revealed three Georgian national security service officials plotted to kill ‘Georgia's Richest Man' at the behest of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. In one recording they debate means of execution, with one operative suggesting they use a poisonous substance which can "kill a person two hours after touching it". "You smear [it] on the door handle," they say — the precise method by which Sergei and Yulia were contaminated with novichok, according to UK authorities.
Whatever the meaning of that parallel, BuzzFeed's series is highly significant, for it was fundamental to cementing the notion of frequent Kremlin-directed murders on British soil in the public consciousness in the year prior to Salisbury. Almost inevitably too, it was widely invoked following the Skripals' poisoning as evidence, if not proof, of Russian state involvement.
Among those seeking to associate From Russia With Blood with the attack was none other than BuzzFeed's Heidi Blake herself. Her various Twitter postings on the subject would be documented by Integrity Initiative in regular roundups of social media activity relating to Skripal, and an Initiative briefing document authored in the wake of the incident and likely circulated to journalists, Russian Lies and the Skripal Case, dubbed the "evidence" presented in her team's investigation "compelling". She would subsequently lead an hour-long ‘Investigative Masterclass' at an event the organization convened at London's Frontline Club — Tackling Tools of Malign Influence.
Officials were evidently taken with the series too - on 13 March 2018, nine days after the Salisbury incident, then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced police and MI5 would reinvestigate the numerous ‘suspicious deaths' detailed by BuzzFeed, a development the outlet reported rather triumphally. However, four months later, Home Secretary Sajid Javid revealed authorities had determined there was "no basis on which to re-open any of the investigations". Fittingly, in December an inquest concluded Alexander Perepilichnyy - one of the ‘BuzzFeed 14' - had died of entirely natural causes.
'A Good Shepherd'
Also in June 2017, BBC Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban somewhat miraculously began conducting a series of interviews with Sergei Skripal in the latter's Salisbury home.
"I was intending to write a book about East-West espionage…My intention was to focus the story on a handful of people, using their stories, and the moment these narratives intersected at Vienna airport, during the swap of 2010, as the key to its structure. Skripal was to be one of the central half-dozen or so stories…I was doing this in my own time — there was no contract. The only sense in which this was a ‘book' in June 2017 was in my own imagination," Urban claims.
"[Skripal] is…an unashamed Russian nationalist, enthusiastically adopting the Kremlin line in many matters, even while sitting in his MI6-purchased house," Urban records, "he was adamant, for example, Putin had not surreptitiously introduced Russian troops into east Ukraine, as much of the Western press reported. If regular units had gone in, he insisted, they would have been sitting in Kiev very soon."
"The problem with the Ukrainians is they are incapable of leadership. They need Russia for that. The Ukrainians are simply sheep who need a good shepherd," Skripal explained.
Such sentiments may explain why Skripal seemingly remained in regular contact with the Russian embassy after his arrival in the UK. Speaking to the Independent 7 March 2018 former Kremlin official Valery Morozov, an associate of Skripal likewise exiled to the UK, claimed the former double agent had meetings with Russian military intelligence officers "every month". Strikingly, he also rejected the notion the apparent nerve agent attack had anything to do with the Kremlin.
"Putin can't be behind this. I know how the Kremlin works, I worked there. Who is Skripal? He is nothing for Putin. Putin doesn't think about him. There is nobody in Kremlin talking about former intelligence officer [sic] who is nobody. There is no reason for this. It is more dangerous for them for such things to happen," Morozov cautioned.
Urban would bizarrely fail to reveal having bagged the unprecedentedly fortuitous scoop until three months after the Salisbury incident — an extremely curious delay, perhaps partially explained by his lucrative book deal with publisher Pan Macmillan being announced mere days later.
— Mark Urban (@MarkUrban01) July 4, 2018
The resultant work, The Skripal Files, was published in October — rather than a history of "East-West espionage", the project had mutated into an extensive retelling of the government's official narrative on Salisbury, padded with discussions of alleged Kremlin assassinations in the UK and Skripal's life and career.
However, while widely marketed as the "definitive account" of the affair, most of the case's central questions aren't tackled, and the name Pablo Miller doesn't appear once in the text — an amazing oversight given Miller was Skripal's MI6 recruiter and handler, and neighbour in Salisbury, rendered all the more perplexing by Miller and Urban once having served in the same tank regiment.
Miller's connections to the Salisbury incident are unclear, and by design — immediately afterwards he deleted his LinkedIn account, which revealed him to be a Senior Analyst at Christopher Steele's Orbis Intelligence, and on 7 March Whitehall issued a D-notice effectively blocking mention of him in the mainstream media. Miller also has unclear connections to Integrity Initiative, his name appearing on a list of invitees to an event hosted by the organization alongside representatives of the BBC, Porton Down, the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and US Embassy.
Adding to the intrigue, Initiative operative Dan Kaszeta — a "counterfeit" chemical weapons ‘expert' who was the very first source to suggest Sergei and Yulia may have been struck by novichok, a mere four days after their poisoning — noted he'd met Urban "several times over the past few years" in a glowing review of The Skripal Files (since removed from the web) he wrote for the organization in December 2018.
In what may just be an intensely spooky coincidence, as 2017 drew to a close British-American TV project Strike Back: Retribution - a spy-drama based on a novel of the same name by ex-SAS soldier Chris Ryan - began airing on Sky One in the UK. The series followed the activities of Section 20, a fictional branch of British Defence Intelligence, which conducts secretive high-risk missions throughout the globe.
In the next episode, Section 20 track down Zaryn/Markov to a laboratory in Belarus where he's found producing more novichok — but while they manage to destroy the facility and the nerve agent, the dastardly Russian escapes.
In the next, Section 20 track Markov to a lab in Pripyat, Ukraine — but in attempting to contain the nerve agent, Section 20 operative Natalie Reynolds is contaminated. The unit forces Markov to create an antidote, but he's killed before he can concoct one — Reynolds' fellow agent Thomas McAllister manages to improvise and save her, however.
The series would air early the next year in the US on Cinemax — the second episode featuring novichok was transmitted 2 March, two days prior to the Salisbury incident, the third 9 March, five days after.
Expecting the Unexpected
Mainstream hostility towards the Kremlin had been intense ever since 2014, but ‘RussiaGate' pushed this antipathy into overdrive. Critical, aggressive and paranoid media reports and statements by politicians had become an essentially daily staple by the start of 2018.
Nonetheless, on 22 January General Nicholas Carter, UK Chief of General Staff, offered perhaps the most hawkish speech on Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. Speaking at a Royal United Services Institute event, Carter described the country as the "most complex and capable state-based threat to our country since the end of the Cold War", and warned hostilities could start "sooner than we expect", particularly as he — ironically — claimed the Kremlin had "[convinced] ordinary Russians the West is a threat…We have been made to appear as the enemy".
"If Russia sees itself in decline, and more able now to go to war than in the future, does this encourage them to think of war? Perhaps compare the situation today to 1912 when the Russian Imperial Cabinet assessed that it would be better to fight now, because by 1925 Russia would be too weak in comparison to a modernised Germany; and Japan, of course, drew similar conclusions in 1941. Russia worries, I think, that the West will achieve a technological offset in the next decade," he cautioned.
Carter said the conflict — which he naturally envisaged being initiated by Russia — would "start with something we don't expect".
Not long after the speech, Operation Toxic Dagger was launched — a vast three week effort in which 40 Commando Royal Marines, Public Health England, the Atomic Weapons Establishment and Porton Down's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory collaborated to prepare Britain's armed forces for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear operations by creating "realistic exercise scenarios based on the latest threat information".
The endeavour included "company-level attacks and scenarios concerning CBRN vignettes, concluding with a full-scale exercise involving government and industry scientists and more than 300 military personnel", with a "chemical decontamination area set up not merely to treat ‘polluted' commandos, but also wounded prisoners".
It was convened on Salisbury Plain — several of the Royal Marines taking part would be seconded to Operation Morlop, a multi-agency ‘clean-up' effort launched in Salisbury in the wake of the poisoning of the Skripals, less than a fortnight after Operation Toxic Dagger was completed.