Sunday 17 November 2019

Poisoned spy's secret Russian girlfriend scared to go to police

Alone and homesick, Sergei Skripal struck up a relationship after moving to England. Now his partner is terrified of being identified, writes Patrick Sawer

IN DOCK: Sergei Skripal was jailed for selling secrets to MI6.
IN DOCK: Sergei Skripal was jailed for selling secrets to MI6.

Patrick Sawer

While the world's eyes have been turned to Salisbury, the two people at the centre of the nerve agent attack have lain unaware, surrounded only by medical staff in chemical protection suits and breathing apparatus.

The story of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal's life that has emerged in the last three weeks has been a relatively lonely one, far from his native Russia, his wife dead and their son Alexander (43) dying last July, apparently from liver failure. Yulia, who was visiting her father and is also unconscious and in a critical condition in Salisbury District Hospital, lived briefly in the UK in 2014, but spent most of her time in Moscow, returning only occasionally.

The UK Court of Protection heard last week that there had been no contact from Russian relatives about their welfare. But it has become known that Colonel Skripal (66), whose wife Lyudmila died of cancer in 2012, had a girlfriend in Salisbury, with whom he had developed a close relationship.

It is understood the woman, also a Russian, is too terrified of possible repercussions to be identified publicly, and is even too scared to tell police what she might know about the days leading up to the attack.

"She is incredibly scared," said a mutual friend. "When she saw the news about what had happened she said to me: 'That's my ex-boyfriend.' She's really worried."

Col Skripal, a decorated Russian intelligence officer who was jailed for selling secrets to MI6, moved to Salisbury in 2010 following a spy swap. He had served as a paratrooper in Afghanistan and was later headhunted by the GRU foreign military intelligence service, one of the most powerful institutions in Russia.

But in the post-Soviet era, money for public functionaries was in short supply, salaries were meagre and in the mid-Nineties he began passing intelligence on GRU operations and agents to MI6, being paid between £3,500 and £4,200 per meeting.

According to intelligence sources, his initial motivation was financial, but he had also become disillusioned with Vladimir Putin's regime. To the state, he was a traitor, the sort Mr Putin vowed to wreak vengeance upon.

To the people of Salisbury, he was just another of the small community of Eastern Europeans whose voices can occasionally be heard in the city's streets. He made a few friends, joined the Railway Social Club, became a familiar figure in Polish shops, buying lottery tickets, vodka and sausages, and regularly visited his wife and son's graves in the London Road cemetery - meticulously examined for traces of nerve agent since the attack.

There is now a claim that Col Skripal even wrote to Mr Putin in 2012 asking to be allowed to visit his homeland.

Vladimir Timoshkov, a childhood friend, said Col Skripal did not see himself as a traitor, as he had sworn an oath to the former USSR.

"His classmates felt he had betrayed the motherland," Mr Timoshkov told the BBC. "He denied he was a traitor. He wrote to Vladimir Putin asking to be fully pardoned and to be allowed to visit Russia."

Perhaps Col Skripal's life as an exile was made more tolerable by the new relationship he struck up.

It is not known how he first met the Russian woman, but he is thought to have initially given her the impression he was wealthy.

"He told her he was a multi-millionaire from Russia and they began communicating," said their friend, a 52-year-old property developer. "The police don't even know she exists. Only a very small number of people know what went on between them and what was said.

"She does wonder if she should have gone to the police but decided not to, as so few people know she even knew him."

It is not known whether the woman, understood to live in Salisbury, might have information regarding the days before the attack, whether she saw suspicious activity, or anyone following him.

In a ruling allowing the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to take blood samples from Col Skripal and his daughter, Mr Justice Williams said no contact had been made with the hospital by any family member.

The NHS in England has confirmed it would be possible for friends or relatives to visit them, on a case-by-case basis.

Hospital authorities will not discuss the practicalities, but it is thought visitors would have to wear full chemical protection outfits or see the pair only through a window.

As they lie in a deep coma, apparently close to death, it is something the woman who befriended Col Skripal might yet contemplate, however daunting it may seem.


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