Inside a former Russian spy’s info wars course. Today’s lesson — the nerve agent poisonings in the U.K.

 

CBC visits Moscow State University, where students learn very different ‘facts’ about the Skripal scandal

Prof. Andrey Manoilo, a former spy, answers students’ questions about the Skripal affair at Moscow State University. Former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury, England, back in March. (Kirill Zarubin)

The verdict of the former Russian spy standing at the front of the classroom at Moscow State University is blunt: the Kremlin blew it.

He tells the students that their government was outmanoeuvred by a disinformation campaign mounted by the British and Americans that embarrassed Russia in the aftermath of one of the most shocking events of the past year — the attack on former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

The two were found incapacitated on a park bench in Salisbury, England, in March. They’d been poisoned by Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union. Both survived.

The West blamed Russia for the attack. But Prof. Andrey Manoilo teaches his students that all the evidence pointing to Russian involvement — whether it was released by British police or uncovered by journalists — is part of a Western offensive.

“I lecture the students in what I know best — the technology behind information wars, ” said Manoilo, who wouldn’t give his age but says he worked for Russia’s security service, the FSB, for a “long time.”

Moscow State University’s main building is one of the most iconic in the capital. (Kirill Zarubin)

Manoilo teaches students how to recognize what he says are the tell-tale signs of a disinformation operation aimed at denigrating the Russian government and its president, Vladimir Putin.

And he says he’s also teaching a younger generation of Russians how to fight back.

He invited a team from CBC News to sit in on two of his lectures. The poisoning of the Skripals was one of the case studies students examined.

British ‘tricks’

Manoilo tells the students unequivocally that everything about the poisoning — from the smearing of Novichok on the Skripals’ door handle to the investigation by British police to the subsequent revelations about the links between the two men named as suspects and the Russian security services — was built on information falsified by the British authorities.

His assertions are diametrically opposed to the facts laid out by British prosecutors, who have meticulously retraced the steps of the suspects from the time they arrived in London on a flight from Moscow to their departure roughly 48 hours later. They were travelling under the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Manoilo’s main criticism of Russia’s handling of the case is that Kremlin officials weren’t fleet-footed enough to spot all the British disinformation “tricks” and successfully head them off.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, both survived being poisoned. (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

According to Manoilo’s theory, the British goal was to try to provoke Russia into producing the two men accused of the attempted hit on the Skripals. He says they did that by releasing an “information dump” of faked photos showing the two men near the Salisbury crime scene. That, he says, pushed the Russian government to put the men on a Kremlin-supported TV channel.

In the Q&A on RT television, they claimed to be travelling vitamin salesmen who had long wanted to see the spire on Salisbury cathedral — not far from the Skripals’ home — so they booked a last-minute trip in the middle of winter to check it out.

Many outside of Russia who saw the interview felt their explanation was laughable and obviously untrue.

After being identified as suspects in the Salisbury poisoning, Ruslan Boshirov, left, and Alexander Petrov gave an interview to the Kremlin-funded RT channel in Moscow saying they had merely been tourists in the British town. (RT channel via Associated Press)

Manoilo didn’t offer an explanation for why the men’s alibi seemed so absurd.

In the aftermath, rather than engaging in trolling by trying to laugh off all the revelations, Russia should have systematically engaged in “counter operations” to push back, Manoilo said. He wouldn’t elaborate on what he had in mind.

Independent verification

For their part, British investigators released closed-circuit television photos of the suspects arriving in Britain, travelling to an area near the Skripals’ house, and then quickly leaving Salisbury without going anywhere near the town’s cathedral.

Independent media outlets later accessed publicly available sources such as school yearbooks and certain Russian government databases to track the men to the towns where they were born.

The journalist collective Bellingcat and its Russian counterpart, The Insider, spoke to relatives of the suspects who confirmed their identities and that they had been decorated by Putin for their work in Russia’s military security service, the GRU.

In September, British prosecutors charged the two, in absentia, with attempted murder, use of chemical weapons and other offences.

At the time, British Prime Minister Theresa May said her government had concluded, based on British intelligence, that the operation had “almost certainly” been approved “at a senior level of the Russian state.”

‘Doctored’ footage

Still, Manoilo tells the students not to be duped by any of this. He says outlets such as Bellingcat are clearly agents of Western intelligence agencies and are working in lockstep with them.

“Any footage, any photos, can be doctored. For this, there are special programs … they can be made to look very realistic,” he said. “So, therefore, this compilation of video and photos is not reliable evidence either.”

In this still from closed-circuit television footage from March 4, 2018, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are seen walking down Fisherton Road in Salisbury. (London Metropolitan Police via Reuters)

Russian state TV has echoed this narrative from the beginning. But now that same explanation is being taught as part of a curriculum at one of Russia’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

“If you know the scheme, you can predict the actions of those who organize it,” Manoilo told his students, who picked his course on information warfare as one of their electives.

‘Untrue statements’

Vienna-based journalist Christo Grozev worked on many of the exposés of the suspected Skripal poisoners, including with Bellingcat, and vehemently denies any links to any intelligence agency.

“These are demonstrably untrue statements,” he said of Monoilo’s claims.

“Everything we have published has been validated by Russian media who go out to villages … find relatives who proudly show photographs of [the suspects] with Putin and boast about them being GRU spies.

“So are all these [people] part of the big conspiracy? It doesn’t make sense.”

Manoilo, a former FSB operative, tells his students the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, was all part of an elaborate Western disinformation campaign to embarrass Russia. (Kirill Zarubin)

It’s unclear precisely what students in the class think of what they’re being taught. Several who spoke to CBC News said the course was interesting and gave them a lot to think about.

“Every country has a truth,” said 19-year-old Maria Schpak.

“This helps us in understanding both countries and opinions.”

‘Two truths in their heads at once’

Mark Galeotti, a London-based professor with Prague’s Institute of International Relations, says the curriculum reflects a widely held view in Russia.

“There is definitely a strong constituency — especially among those with a background in the security apparatus — who believe the West ‘is out to get us,'” he told CBC News in an interview.

However, Galeotti says people outside Russia should be cautious about being too alarmist or reading too much into the anti-Western messaging.

“Today’s Russians, much like Soviet citizens, have retained the capacity to hold two truths in their heads at once,” he said.

“Young Russians, many are patriotic and some see that the West is antagonistic and hypocritical. But nonetheless, they nod along with the official government line to the point that they can get to a beach in Turkey or start a high-tech company in Silicon Valley.”

During an interview with CBC News, Manoilo was asked repeatedly whether it was logical or realistic that so many different Western governments, institutions, journalists and organizations could all have co-ordinated and conspired to frame Russia for the Skripal poisonings.

“I never told the students who exactly attempted to assassinate the Skripals,” he said.

“The thing is, it could have been the British. It could have been someone else. [Students] should believe in the facts.”

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