‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.’ Viktor Chernomyrdin.
As Viktor Chernomyrdin wryly observed, the Russian state doesn’t have the greatest reputation for competence. For some reason, though, its secret services are an exception. From the time of the Trust right up to contemporary stories of Trump-Putin collusion, the Soviet/Russian secret services have appeared not only as ubiquitous but also as awesomely efficient, able to infiltrate governments worldwide, eliminate their enemies, and, in the case of Trump, even elect presidents. Watch the TV show The Americans, and you’ll get the impression that there’s just about nothing these guys can’t do.
For some this is proof positive that Russian military intelligence (GRU) couldn’t possibly have been involved in the Salisbury poisoning case. After all, the GRU are meant to be supreme professionals, but the Salisbury poisoning was so badly botched it smacks of rank amateurism. As for the supposed GRU agents, Petrov and Boshirov, not only did their actions in Salisbury display a distinct lack of professionalism, but their performance in their TV interview made them appear as less than intellectual geniuses, in short not at all the kind of people you’d expect in a supposedly elite organization.
But what if it’s all a myth? What if the Russian secret services are not so much Max Otto von Stierlitz as they are Johnny English? In light of recent revelations, it’s a possibility seriously worth considering.
Take, for instance, the widespread claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. When details finally emerged of the Facebook and Twitter advertisements which are meant to have been the centrepiece of the great Russian plot, one could only conclude that they were remarkably crude. And then there was the fact that the ‘Russians’ (if it was they) spent hardly any money campaigning for Trump in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, but a whole lot more in Washington, DC, which votes roughly 90% Democratic. Clearly, somebody didn’t have a clue what he or she was doing.
And now there’s the curious case of the GRU passports. Following the revelation of the passport details of Salisbury suspects Petrov and Boshirov, Bellingcat made the curious claim that you could identify Russian secret service personnel by the number of the issuing authority listed on their passports. This immediately struck me as bizarre. Would it not be incredibly stupid to have a special issuing authority just for VIPs and secret service personnel, so that passport control officers in foreign countries could immediately spot your spies?? This must be rubbish, I thought. Nobody would be that stupid. But then came some more revelations today from the Russian online media agency Fontanka.ru.
Fontanka had the ingenious idea of tracking down people whose passport numbers were very close to those of Petrov and Boshirov. This it was able to do by the fact that their names appear in public records, such as when they’ve paid traffic fines or bought property. The results are rather interesting.
One of those with a passport number close to Petrov and Boshirov is a guy named Krymsky. Fontanka found that he’d paid a 3,000 ruble fine in July 2015, and listed his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse. The building at that address is said to contain the ‘offices of several military units, including Branch Number 45807, whose commanding officer is Igor Korobov, the head of the GRU.’ It also happens to be ‘just around the corner from the GRU’s Moscow headquarters.’ As if that isn’t suspicious enough, another person with a similar passport number, by name of Andreev, also gave his address as 76B Khoroshevskoe Shosse when paying a fine. In autumn 2016, Andreev apparently flew to Belgrade with a guy named Potemkin. And guess what? When purchasing a plot of land and later buying a Nissan car, Potemkin also said that he lived on Khoroshevskoe! Coincidence? It seems unlikely. Of course, we only have Fontanka’s word for it that all this is true. But on the assumption that the Fontanka journalists haven’t made the whole thing up, it does seem rather probable that the GRU has been caught with its pants down, as it were.
Is the GRU stupid enough to launch an operation like that in Salisbury? Is it so dumb as to give its secret agents passports with consecutive numbers and an easily identifiable issuing code so that everybody scanning a Russian passport can immediately tell who’s a spook and who’s not? Having spent some time in military intelligence myself, I have to say that you can’t rule it out. And if you share Chernomyrdin’s view of his country’s competence, it’s more than just a possibility. What’s life in the GRU really like? Is it like the von Stierlitz classic Seventeen Moments of Spring? Or is it more a case of Johnny Russkii Strikes Again? The more we find out, the clearer the answer becomes.