By Heidi Blake
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They thought they had found a safe haven in the green hills of England. They were wrong. One by one, the Russian oligarchs, dissidents, and gangsters who fled to Britain after Vladimir Putin came to power dropped dead in strange or suspicious circumstances. One by one, their British lawyers and fixers met similarly grisly ends. Yet, one by one, the British authorities shut down every investigation — and carried on courting the Kremlin.
The spies in the riverside headquarters of MI6 looked on with horror as the scope of the Kremlin's global killing campaign became all too clear. And, across the Atlantic, American intelligence officials watched with mounting alarm as the bodies piled up, concerned that the tide of death could spread to the United States. Those fears intensified when a one-time Kremlin henchman was found bludgeoned to death in a Washington, D.C. penthouse. But it wasn't until Putin's assassins unleashed a deadly chemical weapon on the streets of Britain, endangering hundreds of members of the public in a failed attempt to slay the double agent Sergei Skripal, that Western governments were finally forced to admit that the killing had spun out of control.
Unflinchingly documenting the growing web of death on British and American soil, Heidi Blake bravely exposes the Kremlin's assassination campaign as part of Putin's ruthless pursuit of global dominance — and reveals why Western governments have failed to stop the bloodshed. The unforgettable story that emerges whisks us from London's high-end night clubs to Miami's million-dollar hideouts ultimately renders a bone-chilling portrait of money, betrayal, and murder, written with the pace and propulsive power of a thriller.
Based on a vast trove of unpublished documents, bags of discarded police evidence, and interviews with hundreds of insiders, this heart-stopping international investigation uncovers one of the most important — and terrifying — geopolitical stories of our time.
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A note on the original BuzzFeed News investigation
In December 2014, I flew to New York to meet Mark Schoofs, the legendary editor who then headed investigations at BuzzFeed News, to discuss setting up a new investigative unit at the company's office in the United Kingdom. I came carrying a newspaper clipping containing the first clues to a mystery I hoped the new team might solve. It described how a multimillionaire property tycoon had plunged to his death from the fourth-floor window of a London town house a few days earlier—becoming the latest in a group of men, including the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who had all died under bizarre circumstances. I was fascinated by what lay behind this expanding web of death at the heart of London—and Mark was equally intrigued.
Soon after I joined BuzzFeed News and set about recruiting the new UK team, I got a call out of the blue summoning me to a mysterious meeting at an apartment in a smart part of London. When I arrived, I found myself face-to-face with the ex-wife of the very tycoon who had died in that fatal fall. Her ex-husband had been murdered, she said, and by coincidence she wanted my new team to investigate. More serendipitously still, she was sitting on a large trove of documents detailing the activities of her ex-husband and his associates in the years before their untimely deaths.
I was soon joined by an extraordinary group of colleagues in the quest to get to the bottom of the story. Tom Warren, Jane Bradley, and Richard Holmes came aboard the new investigations unit in London, and we teamed up with our American colleagues Jason Leopold and Alex Campbell to chase leads across the Atlantic. Over the next two years, under Mark's inspired oversight, our team connected the property mogul's fatal fall to a web of fourteen deaths in the UK—and one in the United States—all of which had glaring links to Russia. Astonishingly, not one of those cases had been deemed suspicious by the authorities. But we obtained hundreds of boxes of documents, hours of surveillance footage and audio recordings, a huge cache of digital files from forensically restored mobile phones and computers, and bags of discarded police evidence that blew a hole in the official story.
We fed all our exclusive material into a huge custom-built database, supplementing it with thousands of pages of public records, and ran advanced searches across the entire cache to piece together a sprawling international story of money, betrayal, and murder. Then we tracked down and interviewed more than two hundred people connected to the fifteen dead men, while also gathering information from more than forty current and former intelligence and law enforcement sources on both sides of the Atlantic. And we obtained readouts of multiple secret US intelligence files—including a classified report sent to Congress by America's top intelligence official detailing Vladimir Putin's campaign of targeted killing in the West.
Every single reporter was pivotal to the project. Richard personally scanned hundreds of thousands of documents by hand so we could digitize and search them, and he contributed vital law enforcement source-work. Tom set up our gargantuan evidence database and applied his forensic genius to fathoming the dizzyingly complex financial maneuvers at the heart of the story. Jane deployed her unparalleled skills at tracking people down and persuading them to talk against all the odds, and Alex wore out his shoe leather running down leads across America. Jason—the sort of rock 'n' roll reporter who'll stop to get a new tattoo in between meetings with spies—blew the story wide open by getting a multiplicity of US intelligence sources to spill details of secret files linking every single one of the deaths in Britain to Russia.
Reporting this story was, at times, a dicey ride. A man in a black car appeared every night for months outside one reporter's house, another reporter came home to find personal items had been moved around in his bedroom, and it appeared one team member was being followed. We used trackers, panic buttons, intruder alarms, encryption, and countersurveillance techniques to stay safe—and in the final phase of the project, some reporters were moved to discreet locations for their security.
Our initial investigation was published by BuzzFeed News in June 2017. The shock waves it sent are detailed in the pages that follow. Since then, we have carried on investigating and gathering fresh evidence that places the fifteen suspected assassinations we initially uncovered at the center of a much wider campaign of Kremlin-sanctioned killing around the world.
This book is based on that body of work. Details of the events described are taken from our vast repository of documentary and digital evidence, as well as interviews with people who were present, and the dialogue recounted here is based on the best recollections of those who heard it. What follows is a story that more than one government wanted to keep secret—and it would have lain buried forever without the tireless work of my incomparable colleagues at BuzzFeed News.
Salisbury, England—March 4, 2018
The fog that enveloped the city overnight had cleared by lunchtime, revealing the cloud-tipped spire of Salisbury Cathedral to the smattering of Sunday diners ambling up Castle Street. The afternoon was cold and quiet, and a light rain was fizzling on the medieval rooftops as two figures emerged from a columned restaurant door. The couple—a smart, plump, snowy-haired man with a blonde some decades his junior—would have gone unnoticed among the lunch crowd at Zizzi, where they had been washing down risotto with white wine, had it not been for his outburst midway through their meal. The pair left the restaurant suddenly after he flew into a loud temper, ducking down an alley and hurrying away from the marketplace, but their pace slackened once they emerged and crossed the bridge over the swollen river. Across the Avon lies a small tree-fringed playground where children were feeding ducks in the drizzle, and the man paused to press some bread he'd saved from lunch into their hands before the pair strolled on toward the edge of the green. It was here that they came to a sudden halt. Within minutes, passersby would stop to stare at a bizarre scene.
The man and woman were slumped together on a bench—she unconscious, he making strange hand gestures and apparently transfixed by the sky. As onlookers cautiously approached, the man seemed to freeze. Then the woman began convulsing, her eyes white and mouth foaming.
The Sunday shoppers who rushed to help were unaware of the seismic global significance of what was unfolding before them. This was the latest salvo in a secret war being waged on the West by a hostile foreign superpower, and their peaceful Wiltshire city had become a battleground: the site of the first chemical weapons attack unleashed on European soil since the Second World War. Still more alarming, the good samaritans themselves were being exposed to a lethal poison even as they stood on the green sheltering the stricken pair under umbrellas while they waited for paramedics.
The couple on the bench were Sergei Skripal—a former Russian spy turned double agent for MI6—and his thirty-three-year-old daughter, Yulia. Skripal, then sixty-six, had arrived in the United Kingdom eight years earlier, after being freed from a Russian prison where he was serving time for high treason. The onetime senior military intelligence officer had been convicted of selling secrets to Britain and blowing the cover of some three hundred Russian agents in 2006. He was released four years later, along with three other men convicted of spying for the West, in exchange for the return to Moscow of ten Russian spies caught living under deep cover in suburban America. The agents were traded on the tarmac of the Vienna airport in the biggest East-West spy swap since the Cold War—but no sooner had the Russian returnees stepped safely onto home soil than Vladimir Putin made his intentions toward the men he had released clear.
"Traitors will kick the bucket," he announced on state television. "Trust me. These people betrayed their friends, their brothers in arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them."
The events unfolding on the green in Salisbury proved the Russian president true to his word. Sergei and Yulia Skripal lay choking on the bench as their airways were shut down by a deadly chemical that had been smeared on the door handle of his suburban home hours before.
By the time they were admitted to the intensive care unit at Salisbury District Hospital, the Skripals were both suffering convulsions as their lungs filled with fluid and their hearts slowed to a near stop. Doctors were initially perplexed, but when police informed them that the man in their care was a Russian turncoat living under British government protection, the symptoms began to make terrible sense. The Skripals were showing all the signs of having been exposed to a nerve agent—a military-grade chemical that attacks the central nervous system and causes the collapse of all vital bodily functions. These poison gases, fluids, and vapors are so indiscriminately deadly that the world had banned their development or stockpiling some two decades before. In the unthinkable event that the pair had been attacked with a chemical weapon on the streets of Salisbury, wouldn't there be other casualties?
Those fears were compounded with the arrival of a new patient in intensive care. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey was a decorated officer of the Wiltshire Police who had been deployed to search Sergei Skripal's home, and he had been hit with all the same symptoms as the spy and his daughter. Soon after, two more police officers were admitted with itchy eyes and respiratory difficulties. Then came the three children who had taken handfuls of bread from Sergei Skripal to feed the ducks and an off-duty doctor and nurse who had rushed to administer mouth-to-mouth to the Skripals in advance of the paramedics arriving. Before long, twenty-one people had presented with signs of nerve poisoning.
It looked abundantly clear that a deadly chemical had been used to attack the Skripals—indiscriminately endangering the lives of potentially hundreds of British citizens. The medics in Salisbury District Hospital braced themselves for an all-consuming public health crisis while counterterrorism officers from Scotland Yard swept in to take over the investigation from the local police and 180 military personnel were deployed alongside specialist investigators in white protective suits to comb the streets for traces of a nerve agent. But without identifying the exact chemical that had been used in the attack, it was impossible to know where it had come from—or how its awful effects could be treated.
To the northeast of Salisbury, encircled by barbed wire and set in seven thousand acres of open land, is a sprawling complex of windowless labs and bunkers that harbors some of Britain's most closely guarded secrets. The Skripals had been poisoned just a few miles from Porton Down, home to the British government's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, one of the world's foremost centers for research into chemical and biological weapons. As soon as medics spotted the signs of possible nerve-agent poisoning, samples were taken from the Skripals and rushed to the top-secret laboratory for testing.
It did not take long for the government scientists to identify the poison. This was a pure strain of Novichok—a chemical weapon as deadly as it is conspicuously Russian—and researchers at Porton Down had been studying nerve agents like it for years. The toxin was developed in the 1970s and 1980s under a Soviet program code-named Foliant at the Shikhany military research base, in southwest Russia. The existence of the Novichok stockpile was exposed by two Russian state chemists in 1992, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and just as the country was signing on to the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing the development and retention of chemical and biological weapons—and MI6 had been gathering intelligence about its adaptation for use in targeted assassinations ever since. The discovery that the Skripals had been poleaxed by this distinctly Soviet poison was met with stark astonishment. This wasn't just a covert attempt to liquidate a traitor and settle a score: it was also a deliberately overt act of aggression. The poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was a message, and the return address was clear. The Kremlin.
The prime minister needed to be briefed. Theresa May called her intelligence chiefs to a meeting, where she heard evidence that Putin had sent state agents to exterminate the Skripals on British soil. MI6 had compelling intelligence that the Russian president had personally overseen a program to repurpose an arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, including Novichok, for use in targeted assassinations over the past decade. Specialist hit squads had been trained in the use of nerve agents to target individual enemies of the Russian state—and they had been specifically taught to smear the chemicals on door handles, where the highest concentrations of Novichok were identified in samples taken from Sergei Skripal's home. Russian spies had been showing an interest in the Skripals as far back as 2013, when the country's military intelligence unit had hacked multiple email accounts owned by Yulia. More alarmingly still, Sergei's wife and son had both died suddenly in the years since the family relocated to the UK, and there were suspicions that they, too, may have been poisoned.
The British government had no option but to act. On March 12, eight days after the Skripals collapsed, the prime minister announced on the floor of the House of Commons that it was "highly likely" that Vladimir Putin was responsible. "Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent," she said, demanding an explanation from the Kremlin by midnight the following day. Russian officials hit back immediately, calling the remarks a provocation and describing the prime minister's statement as a "circus show in the British parliament," but no explanation was forthcoming. Two days later, May announced the expulsion of twenty-three Russian spies operating under diplomatic cover in London. Russia quickly followed suit, ejecting twenty-three British diplomats from Moscow.
The accusation that Russia had carried out a chemical weapons attack in Britain sparked an unprecedented international reaction, leading to the expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomats from twenty-eight Western countries. The leaders of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany issued a joint statement condemning Russia for "the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War," describing the attack as "an assault on UK sovereignty" and a breach of international law that "threatens the security of us all." The fallout plunged relations between Russia and the West to the kind of subzero temperatures not seen since the end of the Cold War. For a Britain increasingly isolated by its decision to leave the European Union, the attack on the Skripals had occasioned a heartening show of international solidarity. And, at least ostensibly, it enabled a prime minister beleaguered by bruising failures in the Brexit negotiations to reposition herself as a redoubtable global stateswoman. But back in Moscow, Putin was looking on with scarcely disguised glee.
The West's response to the attempted assassination of the Skripals could not have been more of a gift to the man in the Kremlin. The Russian presidential elections fell on March 18—a fortnight after the attack—and Putin needed to mobilize his electorate. True, he did not have much competition. The opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny, had been repeatedly attacked and imprisoned during his campaign before ultimately being banned from running, and Putin's previous leading opponent, Boris Nemtsov, had been gunned down on a bridge outside the Kremlin three years earlier. The election result was a foregone conclusion. But Putin wanted a resounding victory as he closed his grip on another six years in power, and that meant getting a strong turnout at the polls. To achieve his goal, he needed to rouse the Russian people into a state of patriotic fervor and distract them from the dire state of Russia's sanctions-stricken economy, rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure, chronically underfunded health service, and failing education system. What better way to do that than to invoke the looming menace of Russia's enemies in the West, from whom only he could be trusted to defend the motherland?
That had been the principal objective of the state of the nation address Putin delivered three days before the attack on the Skripals, in which he announced that Russia had developed a new arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of penetrating US air defenses. Squaring up to the podium in a sharp-shouldered black suit and deep-red tie, he declared: "I would like to tell those who have been trying to escalate the arms race for the past fifteen years, to gain unilateral advantages over Russia, and to impose restrictions and sanctions…The attempt at curbing Russia has failed." Behind him, two vast screens lit up with footage of snow-covered rocket launchers blasting gigantic missiles into a glowering sky, followed by animations charting a ballistic trajectory encircling the entire globe.
Putin's warmongering state of the nation was the first turn in his well-practiced pre-election performance as a global strongman, and the attack on the Skripals made the perfect sequel. After Britain pointed a finger at the Kremlin and the countries in the United States–led NATO alliance followed suit, all the mechanisms of the Russian state went into overdrive to whip up national hysteria about the iniquity of its Western enemies. Even by the prodigious standards of the Russian propaganda machine, rarely had such a dazzling variety of alternative conspiracy theories been spewed out by the state's multiplicity of troll factories, fake-news farms, and organs of agitprop. Britain had deliberately put the Skripals into a coma and fabricated evidence to frame Russia—or to detract attention from its difficulties in the Brexit negotiations, or to smear Putin ahead of the presidential election or to destroy Russia's reputation as a "peacemaker" in Syria, or out of sour grapes over having lost the right to host the 2018 World Cup. MI6 had poisoned Skripal out of fears he would flip and start selling British secrets back to Moscow. The pro-Western government of Ukraine was behind the attack. Sweden, Slovakia, or the Czech Republic was responsible. A mafia group had taken out a contract on the Skripals. The Novichok had originated from the lab at Porton Down, or the United States had made its own version of the nerve agent or stolen it while performing chemical weapons inspections in former Soviet states. So the theories wound on and on.
Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, called the poisoning a "grotesque provocation rudely staged by the British and US intelligence agencies"—and Putin himself was scornfully dismissive, describing Britain's accusations as "delirium and nonsense." But the president and his propagandists also took care to fan the flames of suspicion.
Three days after the attack on the Skripals, before Britain had publicly accused Russia of the attempted assassination, the Kremlin's Channel One TV station used the main bulletin of its flagship current affairs show to issue an unambiguous warning. Skripal was "a traitor to his country," the host said. "I don't wish death on anyone," he continued, "but for purely educational purposes, for anyone who dreams of such a career, I have a warning: being a traitor is one of the most dangerous professions in the world." Anna Chapman, the glamorous linchpin of the network of ten Russian sleeper agents caught spying on the United States in 2010, also publicly accused Skripal of treachery. And, on the cusp of the presidential election, Putin himself used a specially commissioned documentary to issue his own monition. Asked by the handpicked interviewer if he was capable of forgiveness, the president nodded. Then a glacial smile crept across his face.
"But not everything," he said. The interviewer wanted to know what it was the president could not forgive.
"Betrayal," Putin spat back.
The Russian people are used to living with this sort of cognitive dissonance. This is how a nation is hypnotized: sowing confusion with conspiracy and contradiction, distorting debate with disinformation, and muddying fact with falsehood so that the collective consciousness is clouded by a perpetual fog of ambiguity in which nothing is true and no one is accountable. Sergei Skripal betrayed the motherland by selling Russian secrets to the West—and Putin is a strongman, so traitors will kick the bucket. The West is smearing Russia with false accusations to threaten its power—and Putin is a strongman, so only he can save the nation. These were the dissonant messages that the people of Russia received—and, by and large, believed.
When election day came, Putin swept to victory with 77 percent of the vote and a turnout of more than two-thirds of the population. Almost as soon as the polls had closed on March 18, his campaign spokesman attributed the success to a single event.
"Turnout is higher than we expected, by about eight to ten percent, for which we must say thanks to Great Britain," said Andrey Kondrashov.
"Whenever Russia is accused of something indiscriminately and without any evidence, the Russian people unite around the center of power. And the center of power is certainly Putin today."
The attack on Sergei Skripal was a blatant provocation designed to give Britain—and the West—no choice but to react exactly as they did, and the gambit had paid off handsomely. But it was also part of a far bigger and more sinister picture.
The truth was that Putin had been using deadly force to wipe out his enemies from the first days of his presidency, and the West had long been looking away. Dissenting politicians, journalists, campaigners, defectors, investigators, and critics had been gunned down, poisoned, hit by cars, thrown out of windows, beaten to death, and blown up on Russian soil since his ascent to the Kremlin on the last day of 1999. Turning a blind eye to this brutality was the cost of doing business with an economically renascent nuclear power that had a stranglehold on Europe's energy supply and a superwealthy class of oligarchs pouring billions into Western economies. Successive leaders had let themselves be lulled into the belief that Putin was a man they could do business with—a man who, with the right coaxing, might finally come in from the cold and integrate the world's largest country into the warmth of the rules-based liberal world order. That had proved a catastrophic misjudgment.
Putin never really wanted to join the club. He remained what he had always been: a creature of the totalitarian Soviet security state. To his mind the collapse of the USSR, with its mass killings, censorship, political repression, and bellicose isolationism, was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century," and he blamed it on the West. The 1989 revolutions that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Europe, and the accession to the EU and NATO of the former Soviet satellite states—these were outrages to be avenged. So he had risen through the ranks of the KGB and arrived at the Kremlin ready to use all the tactics in his Soviet security-service tool kit to restore Russia to its former glory. While the leaders of the United States and Europe courted him with summits and state visits, handing him the presidency of the G8 and establishing the NATO-Russia Council to foster closer military and political relations, Putin was smiling for the camera, shaking hands, and plotting a silent war on the liberal institutions and alliances upon which the stability of the West depends. The fox was in the chicken coop.
The systematic extermination of enemies, traitors, and opponents was at the core of Putin's clandestine campaign. Covert killing is a deeply Soviet form of statecraft, a prized lever of power that had rested for more than half a century in the hands of the feared USSR security service from which the new president had emerged. The KGB had led the world in the art and science of untraceable murder, with its poison factories and weapons labs churning out such deadly marvels as plague sprays, cyanide bullets, lipstick pistols, and ricin-tipped umbrellas. Those capabilities had dwindled since the USSR fell—but not on Putin's watch. While the West welcomed him to the fold, the Russian president was busy reviving the KGB's targeted killing program. He plowed public money into researching and developing chemical and biological weapons, psychotropic drugs, obscure carcinogens, and other undetectable poisons, and he armed specialist hit squads to hunt down his foes at home and abroad. He restored the fearsome power of the Soviet state security apparatus—enriching and empowering the FSB, the KGB's successor agency, and giving its agents special worldwide powers to kill enemies of the state with impunity. Anyone who betrayed the motherland, anyone who threatened the absolute power of the Russian state, anyone who knew too much—all put themselves squarely in the Kremlin's crosshairs. And every dead body sent a signal. If you cross Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, there is no safe place for you on earth.
The covert killing campaign was one crucial line of attack in a much wider war of subversion. As soaring oil prices swelled the state's coffers, Putin shoveled resources not only into the development of cyberweaponry capable of shutting down foreign infrastructures at the touch of a button but also hacking labs that could gather kompromat
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—Ben Rhodes, author of the New York Times bestseller The World As It Is
- On Sale
- Nov 24, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books