The Russian secret services are in crisis over the fallout from the “botched” chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, British intelligence officers believe.
The GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, is being accused by rival agencies of “crossing the line” over the way the attempted killing of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was carried out, senior Whitehall sources claimed last night (Saturday).
British officials told The Sunday Telegraph they believe the two suspects accused by Scotland Yard of the attack were wheeled out on Russian state-sponsored television as punishment for leaving a trail of evidence during the operation to target Col Skripal.
This included numerous sightings of them on CCTV walking around Salisbury in broad daylight, using public transport and carelessly discarding the bottle containing Novichok in a park, leading to the death of Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old Salisbury woman, in July.
A Whitehall source said that one theory under review was that the men “are being thrown under the bus by another agency because they’ve messed up”.
The source said: “It’s a line of inquiry — that there’s an internal Russian [dispute] that ‘that agency has crossed the line, let’s throw the guys under the bus’. We’re waiting with interest to see what they come out with.”
The claims come as this newspaper separately reveals that a new suite of sanctions against corrupt Russian officials is to be shelved for up to two years.
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Last night Conservative MPs warned Theresa May that the Government must “get its act together” over the measures. British agencies believe that one indication of the growing tension between different branches of the Russian secret services is the faltering propaganda coming out of Moscow.
A deluge of disinformation being pumped out by Russian bots following the poisoning in March fell away earlier this month after the two alleged GRU operatives were named by Scotland Yard, according to analysis by cyber security experts.
Instead, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov gave an implausible account of their actions on RT television, claiming they had travelled to the city as tourists to visit the “beautiful” cathedral and its ancient clock.
That suggests the painstaking police investigation, coupled with a firm diplomatic response by the British Government and its allies, may have put the Russian state on the back foot.
The Whitehall source said: “We’ve been proactive in calling out what the Russians are doing. We’ve got a lot better at countering Russian comms activity. Previously they could get away with plausible deniability, in this case it’s not at all plausible, it’s implausible deniability. That’s pretty much down to working across Government: police, intelligence agencies working with us both on the case and also how we’ve communicated that.”
The source added: “Right at the start of Salisbury there was a huge campaign of pro-Russia accounts pushing out the Russian narrative. We haven’t seen this since [the men were named].
“The social media networks have cracked down — Twitter has kicked off thousands of Russia-friendly or suspicious accounts that have created bots. It could [also] be a decision by the guys pushing the propaganda button in Moscow that acknowledge this isn’t the strongest story. It’s not really plausible so we’re not going to push it in the same way as we did in the start, when there was a more receptive audience.”
Theresa May told the House of Commons earlier this month that Petrov and Boshirov are officers of Vladimir Putin’s military spy agency.
Prosecutors said there is enough evidence to charge the men with offences including conspiracy to murder Mr Skripal and his daughter.
Mrs May told the Commons: “This was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
But the Crown Prosecution Service faces a battle to bring the case to court as Russia does not allow the extradition of its own nationals. A European arrest warrant for the two men has been -obtained.
Following the attack, more than 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by nearly 30 countries across the world in a show of support for the UK.
Boshirov and Petrov made their much ridiculed TV appearance after Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, publicly called on them to speak to the media, leaving them with little choice but to take part in the stage-managed interview.
As expected, they denied being responsible, but their explanation of what they were doing in Salisbury prompted ridicule in several quarters.
They claimed friends had urged them to see the cathedral’s “famous 123m spire”, but that the snow and “muddy slush” meant their first trip to Salisbury was less than an hour because of train delays, forcing them to return the next day.
Boshirov and Petrov also denied taking a bottle of Nina Ricci perfume to carry the deadly Novichok poison with them to the UK.
“Isn’t it silly for decent lads to have women’s perfume? When you pass through customs they check all your things,” Boshirov said.
“That would raise questions even among ordinary people. Why does a man have women’s perfume? We didn’t have it,” Petrov said.
The men claim that being named by British police has left them too scared to go out.
Their account follows a barrage of Russian misinformation on social and mainstream media, with Whitehall sources saying that 40 different “counter narratives” have been used to undermine the British version of events.