Britain offers wealthy Russians many attractions: London’s culture, bucolic countryside, exclusive schools, and a global financial hub. But for some former spies and foes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a move west has been lethal.
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of helping British agents and then freed in a spy swap, could become next in the disturbing pattern. Skripal, 66, and daughter, Yulia, 33, are in critical condition in England. British officials say they were exposed to a rare nerve agent.
The deaths that have aroused suspicions include a man who was impaled on the spikes of an iron fence; a former Putin aide found in a Washington hotel room with blunt force injuries; and an ex-spy poisoned with radioactive tea.
British officials have not openly blamed the Russian government for the brazen assault on the Skripals in Salisbury. The father and daughter were found comatose on March 4 in the medieval city where Sergei Skripal had a home.
Author Joe Serio, who spent nearly 10 years with the anti-organized crime unit of Moscow’s police and wrote “Investigating the Russian Mafia,” said Britain is a popular destination for Russian émigrés because it’s “the gateway to the West, the seat of the language, the seat of the empire, the seat of major finance.”
None of that makes the country a perfect place to hide, though, Serio said.
“Russian leaders seem to go out of their way to get rid of anybody that seems to be in their way, someone who’s betrayed them, someone who’s interrupting the money flow,” he said. “They just go wherever they have to go to get their guy.”
Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the U.K. Parliament committee that reviews police and intelligence matters, said a string of unexplained deaths must be re-examined in light of what happened to Skripal and his daughter.
Cooper cited a 2017 BuzzFeed News investigation of 14 deaths that may have involved foul play. One was Scot Young’s. He worked with Putin’s critics before his body was found impaled on railings outside his London apartment in 2014. Police treated it as an apparent suicide, although the coroner said the evidence was inconclusive.