Spies without borders -- how the Salisbury poisoners got into Britain

How did two men with no registered businesses, or even connections to such, get UK business visas, when Britain rigorously checks every applicant?

Daria Sukharchuk
Daria Sukharchuk NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
Spies without borders -- how the Salisbury poisoners got into Britain - NewsMavens
Suspects in Salisbury, YouTube

Why this story matters:

The fallout from the Skripal poisoning sent shockwaves through the Russian media. Not a week passed without another scandalous revelation. The Russian and British journalists were able to "unmask" "Petrov" and "Boshirov"-- the two men behind the attack, and prove that they are indeed agents of the GRU, and even trace their real addresses in Moscow.

Today, another part of the investigative series came up, and it answers a crucial question: how did two men with no business background get through all the background checks performed on the UK visa applicants?

Having read about the Russian hacker attacks that took place in the last years, you might think that it involved some mean hacker tactics.

But no, in fact, the vulnerability the FSB exploited was purely that of human nature.

One of the visa center employees had a foreign-born wife, and the FSB threatened to deport her if he didn't cooperate. Stories like this are a reminder that, whatever our technologies are, people are still the most important resource in any organization.

Details from the story:

  • In order to get a UK visa, even a tourist one, one needs to provide sufficient proof of a legitimate income.
  • Each application is supposed to be proved first by the visa center, then by the British Ministry of Interior, and quite many are rejected -- even when the applicants have decent, fully legal jobs and incomes.
  • And yet, two GRU agents were able to get UK business visas despite having no legal business anywhere.
  • That, of course, was no secret to the Russian secret services FSB and GRU when they decided to send two agents to Britain in order to poison Sergey Skripal. So in order to circumvent that rule, they blackmailed an employee of TLSconnect (the company that runs most of Britain's visa centers).
  • This man, Vadim Mitrofanov (name changed), who worked as an IT security specialist, had a foreign-born wife, and her immigrant status turned out to be the weak spot the FSB decided to exploit. 
  • According to the documents that Mitrofanov showed Bellingcat and The Insider, a Russian investigative journalism website, he was forced to share sensitive information with the FSB, because otherwise, the FSB would deport his wife (the Federal Immigration agency has been reporting to the FSB for the last 2 years).
  • He shared as little as he could with them, and knows that they were planning to send a couple of their agents to Britain already in 2016. They needed the visa center to cooperate in order to skip some of the background checks. 
  • According to the Insider, "Petrov" and "Boshirov", the two men who attacked Skripal, made their first trip to the UK, on business visas, a few months after Mitrofanov first heard about the plan.
  • In 2016, he managed to flee the country together with his wife and daughter, after multiple attempts, and is now applying for asylum in the United States.

Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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