The Russian Threat Takes Many Forms: Cyber, Ricin, Polonium-210, Novichok and Putin

Putin's World

It should surprise no one that Russia seeks to gain an advantage over the United States. The Special Prosecutor’s Indictment of 12 Russians from the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU) Units 26165 and 74455 for cyber operations during the last election should surprise no one. Recently, Senator Gary Peters, a member of the Armed Services Committee said that Russia wants to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.” Misinformation and distrust are just two initial steps that Russia seems to undertake besides a host of others in various information warfare campaigns undertaken. Misinformation followed by fear are all hallmarks of what President Putin knows best.

Russia is an adversary of the United States and has been for some time. For years, New England fishermen spoke of Russian trawlers off the coast. Don’t the Russians have fish off their own coasts? It’s one thing for fishing boats to venture out to the Georges Banks from Gloucester, New Bedford or Newport but to come to the coast of the US from Russia on a fishing trawler is another thing. But these Russian trawlers were “fishing” or collecting intelligence because the Navy had ships and submarines coming in and out of Newport and Groton. Russian ships have been lurking around underwater fiber-optic cables in California. In September 2015, the Russian ship Yantar, was off the coast of Kings Bay, Georgia just where the US has a submarine base collecting intelligence.

On August 31, 2018, the United States ordered the closure of Russia’s San Francisco Consulate. The San Francisco Consulate was the hub for all of Russia’s intelligence collection on the west coast. Military and economic espionage was the forte of the majority of those so-called Russian Diplomats assigned to the San Francisco Consulate. One day in particular, a Russian “diplomat” in a business suit traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge heading north and getting off on Rt. 1. The Russian passed by Muir Beach to finally be observed at Stinson Beach by the water’s edge with a device in his hands. After a few minutes the Russian Intelligence officer in a business suit left the beach.

While the activities of Russia have increased in the cyber domain, the Chinese, Iranians and others are all seeking an advantage against America. America must confront these cyber threats with vigor. We are just at the water’s edge when it comes to information warfare. Stealing information or manipulating it are two examples from Putin’s playbook. But he also has a sinister side that favors violence. This is an area that our government and others can’t overlook. The Russian government has undertaken a targeted assassination campaign against individuals using Ricin, Polonium-210, and Novichok among other weapons.

Forty years ago, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissent who escaped to England was working for the BBC and Radio Free Europe. On September 7, 1978, as Markov was at the Waterloo Bridge bus station, an assassin injected a Ricin capsule into his thigh. The assassin used an umbrella that fired a Ricin capsule into the target. The umbrella weapon was created by the technical staff of the KGB.

In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer was poisoned in the Millennium Hotel’s Piano Bar in London. Litvinenko had received political asylum and had been providing information on Russian mafia operations and ties to President Putin. Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi were sent to poison Litvinenko using Polonium-210 which they put in his tea. In 1997, Litvinenko was ordered to coordinate the assassination of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Instead, he warned Berezovsky. In 1998, Litvinenko accused his FSB supervisors of seeking to kill Berezovsky. Berezovsky was an early supporter of President Putin but later was a fierce opponent. Putin took these actions by Litvinenko as an act of treason. Litvinenko and his family sought refuge in England.

Sir Robert Owen, who led a British inquiry into the poisoning of Litvinenko found “that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Patrushev (head of the Russian Security Service in 2006) and also by President Putin”

On March 4, 2018, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter Yulia were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok in an assassination attempt. Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Skripal and his daughter survived but there were other victims. Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess were both contaminated. Dawn Sturgess died in Amesbury after coming in contact with the nerve agent. Years earlier, Skripal who acted as a double agent for MI-6 was traded for Russian spies held by England.

Russia has become emboldened with these attacks and will continue to push the envelope if nothing is done to reign them in. Russia has been an enemy of our freedom and is nothing short of an economic, military and political adversary. Whether with cyber operations against our elections, stealing economic secrets from Silicon Valley, or collecting intelligence the Russia Bear is very active on all fronts. With their targeted assassinations of so many individuals in England, Putin has shown a propensity towards violence that goes against all international laws and civilized norms. Expelling diplomats does not send the right signal or cause any discomfort to Putin or those decision makers around him. The US and the rest of the western world needs a comprehensive plan to contain the bear before it thinks this is the norm.

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