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SERGEI SKRIPAL’S THREE TELEPHONE-CALLS OPEN THE QUESTION OF WHICH SIDE THE BRITISH THINK HE’S ON

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by John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with [3]

Sergei Skripal (lead image), the central figure in the British Government’s 21-month old story of an attempted assassination by GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, is alive; not very well; and living in England.  

Skripal has revealed himself in three brief telephone calls to his niece Viktoria, living with his mother Yelena in Yaroslavl. The first call took place on April 4 of this year, a year and a month after Skripal and his daughter Yulia were hospitalised in Salisbury, following an alleged poison attack in the centre of the city on March 4, 2018. The second of Sergei’s telephone calls home was on May 9, 2019, when he left a brief recorded message on Viktoria’s telephone; May 9 is celebrated in Russia as Victory Day for the defeat of the enemy in Europe. Skripal’s third call reportedly took place on June 26, following his own and Yulia’s birthdays.

The authenticity of Skripal’s calls, each of them from a different telephone number, has been confirmed by Viktoria. They are the first evidence that he is alive; moreover, that he is well enough to testify about the alleged attack by a nerve agent the British Government has called Novichok.

The evidence of the calls also suggests that Sergei and Yulia Skripal are prevented from communicating freely with their Russian kin, and may be physically under lock and key.

Disclosure of the three telephone calls has come from Viktoria Skripal in two filmed appearances in Moscow, one on May 24 and a second on June 26; followed by brief interviews with the state news agency RIA Novosti on August 2 and August 28.  They drew almost no attention at the time or since. The Anglo-American press has ignored them or missed their meaning. Although reported on the occasion as press conferences, the video records of Viktoria Skripal’s appearances appear to have been carefully edited, and no reporter is visible.

Viktoria made her public disclosures of Sergei’s telephone calls after exceptional delays. The first disclosure in May occurred 50 days after the first call; 15 days after the second. The August disclosures followed by more than a month after the third call. All three calls to the Skripal home in Yaroslavl are likely to have been recorded by the Russian intelligence services; the tape of only one has been released publicly, and according to Viktoria, it is not the complete recording.   

The lengthy delays between Sergei’s calls and Viktoria’s public statements suggest that Russian officials have subjected the recordings to elaborate testing, not only to match Sergei’s voice against earlier recordings, but to search what he says, and how, for secret or coded messages.  Viktoria has been reported [4] by RIA Novosti as saying: “I gave the records [of the April and May telephone-calls] to the Central Investigative Committee [domestic procuracy]. And I went to the investigator to discuss.  [There are] only two records. One small recording was made on April 4 and the second was made on May 9. Personally, I spoke with him only in April.”

Although the calls are the first evidence of Skripal since the dramatic incidents in Salisbury started an international campaign accusing GRU, the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin of  chemical warfare and attempted murder, there has been only one Russian media follow-up of the initial telephone-call reports.  This appeared in Izvestia on December 1 [5].   The two reporters identified with that story, Vladislav Zuevsky and Nikolai Pozdnyakov,   cannot be contacted directly, and refuse to answer emailed questions.   

Viktoria Skripal’s first press conference was arranged at Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK), the largest mass circulation newspaper in Russia, and reported by the newspaper on May 24 [6].  The videotape runs for 3 minutes 43 seconds. There are four editing cuts in Viktoria’s remarks. 

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Viktoria Skripal in her Moskovsky Komsomolets presentation as published on May 24, 2019.  Source: https://www.mk.ru/ [6]

The newspaper report, signed by Alexander Klibanov, is brief: “On Friday [May 24], Victoria Skripal, Sergei Skripal’s niece, held a press conference at the MK press center. A day earlier in our edition, material was published with an audio message in which Sergei addressed his niece and congratulated her on May 9. After that, it became clear that Skripal is not only alive, can talk, but also periodically gets in touch with relatives. During the press conference, niece Viktoria answered the burning questions of journalists.” No journalists are visible during the presentation; only one question was asked on the soundtrack,  at the very end. An unidentified male voice asks: “Do you think he will call you again?”

“I really want to continue these conversations as usual”, she replied. “Once every two weeks -and he would talk with his mother. I need nothing else from him, neither financial support, only a psychological one. She’s 91 years old —  he’s her last son alive. She must know what’s happening with him: I told her that, thank God, we found him, that’s all.” 

A woman named Yulia Verbitskaya, identified as Viktoria’s lawyer, speaks for 36 seconds. She says: “Now we know he’s alive. Now we know he’s in good health enough to speak reasonably at different periods of time: that he’s not on neuroleptics or other medicines because he uses  phrases which are his own characteristic ones for his usual everyday speech. That’s very valuable for us. If his relationship matches his intention ‘you live on your own, we live on our own’ —  well then, that’s his position. I explained their rights to Viktoria and Yelena Yakovlevna, his mother.” 

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Yulia Verbitskaya during the videotaped presentation at MK. Source: https://www.mk.ru/ [6] She can be found at her own website: http://jvvl.ru/ [9]

Viktoria Skripal’s appearance at the Moscow newspaper was reported the day after the newspaper ran a separate story with the tape-recording of Sergei Skripal’s May 9 call, left on Viktoria’s answer-phone. The May 23 publication [10] by MK was bylined Lev Spiransky. 

 “GRU Colonel Sergei Skripal gave real ‘signs of life’ for the first time since the poisoning in Salisbury,” Spiransky began.  “He called his niece in Yaroslavl — we publish an audio recording of one of the calls.” Note that Spiransky refers to more than one call from Sergei, but he publishes only the May 9 tape. Three months later, in August, Viktoria identified an earlier call from Sergei on April 4.

About that one Spiransky reported on May 24: “According to our data, this [May 9 call] was not Skripal’s first call. Earlier, he had spoken to Viktoria about the beating, advising her to draw less attention to herself. The fact that it was her uncle [Sergei] who called, the woman has no doubt. Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned in Salisbury on March 4, 2018. After that, unlike Yulia, who recorded a video message and called relatives and friends in Russia, he, before the current calls to relatives, has never appeared publicly. Doubts have repeatedly been expressed that Sergei Skripal is alive.”

The press record reveals only one telephone call to “relatives and friends” by Yulia Skripal; that was on April 5, 2018, directed to Viktoria, and reported here [11]. Only one video message has been published from Yulia; that was staged on May 23, 2018, at a US airbase near Salisbury; read the details here [12]  and here [13].   

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The tape-recorded message from Sergei Skripal on May 9 runs for 33 seconds. Source: https://www.mk.ru/ [10]

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Transcript of Sergei Skripal’s May 9 message, left on the answer-phone on May 9, and broadcast by TV Centre (TVTs) on June 26. Source: https://www.tvc.ru/ [16]

The tape-recording of Sergei’s May 9 call says [10]:   “Hello, Vikulya! [term of endearment for Viktoria]. This is Seryozha  [informal for Sergei]. I tried to get through – ‘subscriber doesn’t respond’ [taped message on answer-phone]. Well, OK, happy holidays. I wish you all the best! I just wanted to know how are you doing, how is Senya’s [informal for Arseny] finger? Heh-heh.  Well, OK. I’m alright, Yulia too. Everything is normal, [I congratulate] Mama on the holiday, with Victory Day. Well, that’s all, bye.”

MK explained that Sergei’s mention of Arseny in his recorded message, and in the unreleased call of April 4, was a reference to Viktoria’s husband and to press reports of an affray involving both Viktoria and Arseny at the homeowners’ association in Yaroslavl to which they belong. Sergei Skripal appears to have known about the assault, possibly from the Novaya Gazeta report which was published [17] on April 2, two days earlier than his telephone call.    Reportedly, Viktoria was kicked in the stomach and punched in the face; her husband’s finger was broken; the Yaroslavl police began an investigation.

TV Centre’s report [16] by Alexander Ogorodnikov was broadcast on June 26.   Headlined “Woman fears London will hold her relatives”, the text implies the Skripals are being detained against their will. The publication also reported that Viktoria “believes the ex-GRU colonel could have made a deal with the British authorities to take part in the staging of the events in Salisbury. ‘London needed a reason to aggravate relations with Moscow, and it is quite possible that my family could get some rewards for this. I can’t know for sure, but people change,’ she said. According to her, on May 9, Skripal sent her a voice message, at the beginning of which he asks some people in English for permission to call. ‘In addition, our messages reach the telephones from which they called; even someone reads them, but there are no answers,’  Izvestia quoted her as saying.”

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The TV Centre broadcast, dated June 26, appears to show Viktoria walking in Moscow in one costume; then appearing at a press conference in another costume.  The same videoclip reveals photographers in the audience, but no reporters. Source: https://www.tvc.ru/ [16]

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This is the only press report to claim there was more to the tape-recorded message of May 9 than has been published. According to Viktoria, she heard Sergei speaking in English and asking others within earshot to allow him to leave a message on the answer-phone.

“Earlier it was reported that Sergei Skripal called his niece twice. The first time on April 1, after Viktoria got involved in conflict with the Homeowners ‘ Association. [Sergei] reproached his niece that she attracts too much attention to herself. The second time the ex-GRU colonel contacted Viktoria on May 9, however, She was not at home, and the conversation was recorded on an answering machine. The last time Viktoria spoke with her cousin almost a year ago, after which communication with her ceased; calls and messages were not answered.”

This part of the TV Centre report confuses the date of the first telephone-call; Viktoria has said it was on April 4. The report also fails to identify Arseny, or to clarify who, Arseny or Viktoria,  had been in conflict with the homeowners association. Viktoria has also confirmed that on the evening of May 9, when Sergei left his answer-phone message, she was at home helping to bathe  her grandmother.

The two MK reporters identified in the May 23 and May 24 publications, Lev Spiransky and Alexander Klibanov, and the TV Centre reporter, Alexander Ogorodnikov, were asked to clarify their contacts with Viktoria. Had they listened to the tape-recordings of Sergei Skripal’s calls?   What do they think is the reason for the delay between the calls and the public disclosures? What do they believe of Viktoria’s claim that Sergei may have staged the incident?  The journalists refused to respond.

On August 2, Viktoria spoke with RIA Novosti [20], revealing she had received a telephone-call from Sergei on June 26.  That was the same day as the TV Centre broadcast.

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Source: https://ria.ru/ [20]

“The niece of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, Viktoria Skripal, told RIA Novosti that the uncle contacted the family on June 26. According to her, she did not want to make public information about the call of her relative…Skripal explained that on June 20 and 23, Sergei and Yulia had birthdays. She said the uncle spoke to the family for about five minutes. ‘All his calls last no more than five minutes. Apparently, that’s how much he’s allowed to talk to us. This time he said he did not intend to return to Russia,’ Skripal said. She noted that the family is surprised by the fact that Sergei did not call on his mother’s birthday. ‘Of course we waited. The grandmother was very upset,’ the source said.”

Yelena Skripal’s birthday reportedly falls on July 24 ; that is her name day in the Russian Church calendar. The year earlier, on July 24, 2018, according to Viktoria, Yulia Skripal had telephoned the home to wish her grandmother a happy birthday. At the time, Yulia explained [22] that “her father could not talk because he still had a tracheostomy [tube]. It will be removed in three days [July 27, 2018], and he will call, but now he is wheezing heavily and [his voice] will not be heard.”  That was Yulia Skripal’s last reported telephone contact with her family. As is now known, Sergei Skripal did not make his first contact until nine months later. 

RIA Novosti followed with a second interview with Viktoria, published on August 28 [23].  Describing the June 26 telephone call, Viktoria told RIA Novosti: “He said that he is more or less well, but his health still remains a big problem, because of the stoma [post-operative tracheotomy scar] still in his throat. He is examined every month in a hospital in the UK’. She noted the family still doesn’t know where exactly in the UK  Sergei Skripal is located,  and they have not been able to get a visa to see [their] relatives.

“ ‘Why not allow the Skripals to enter [the UK] because [the effects of the alleged poisoning] appear to be virtually non-existent. I can’t say that they [Sergei and Yulia] joined in a conspiracy – that they haven’t colluded [with the British]. I don’t see it, I don’t know that. But a man who has a stoma in his throat would talk with significant hoarseness. And here’s a person speaking with age-related changes in his voice. He doesn’t speak with an obvious wheeze. He talks as if he has a cold, as if his throat is a little irritated. There is no [impression] that they performed some kind of operation,’ Skripal said. She recalled that when everyone was shown the video of Sergei Skripal’s daughter Yulia, and everyone saw her mark from the stoma, the doctors questioned all the diagnoses.”

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Yulia Skripal, filmed by Reuters on May 23, 2018. The stoma is circled on the picture; the medical reasons for it were discussed in a London court proceeding reported here [25].   For analysis of the staging of Yulia’s appearance, and differences between the English and Rusian versions of what she said, read this [12].

Viktoria was also quoted as blaming the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, for stopping family contact with Sergei and Yulia. “The niece of former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, Viktoria Skripal,  believes that calls from her uncle stopped due to the assumption of Boris Johnson to the post of Prime Minister of Great Britain. ‘When he came to power,  first of all I realized that he banned all communication of the family, so there were no more telephone conversations,’ said Skripal, adding that they had been waiting for another call on July 24, the birthday of the mother of Sergei Skripal.” Johnson became the new parliamentary leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister on July 23.

London lawyers who have reviewed [26] the new evidence observe that Sergei and Yulia Skripal are now healthy and articulate enough to testify as witnesses in the coroner’s court inquest set for early next year into the cause of Dawn Sturgess’s death.  That, according to former Prime Minister Theresa May and the Metropolitan Police, was caused by the same Novichok as targeted the Skripals. “There is no other line of inquiry beyond this. And the police have today formally linked the attack on the Skripals and the events in Amesbury – such that it now forms one investigation,” May told [27] the House of Commons on September 5, 2018. 

London sources also believe the new telephone-call evidence has the potential to transform the British and international narrative of the Skripal case. What reason of state or law is there, they ask, for the authorities not to permit Sergei and Yulia Skripal to telephone Yelena and Viktoria in Yaroslavl, nor allow mother and niece to visit the UK? That question in London leads back to Viktoria’s question in Moscow – was the Salisbury incident staged, and if so, are the Skripals under British arrest?