Spies Without Borders – How the FSB Infiltrated the International Visa System
“One of the unanswered questions lingering after Bellingcat’s unmasking of the identities of suspects in the botched-up poisoning of Sergey and Yulia Skripal, is how two (or, likely, more) undercover GRU officers were able to obtain visas to travel to the UK. Securing a visa to the UK – as to most of EU destinations – is not a trivial procedure. A single-entry visa is relatively straightforward to procure – it requires either an invitation from a UK resident or business, or a pre-arranged tourist trip. To get a multi-entry visa – the kind the two GRU officers are reported to have used – a Russian applicant must go through many more hoops. The visa-seeker must make a convincing case for their need for multiple trips and present evidence for both their steady links to their home country, and their financial capability to sustain themselves in the UK over an extended period. The UK consular section makes a concerted effort to validate the data provided by applicants, and is known to reject applicants – even such with a prior multi-entry visa – once they discover an inconsistency in the ‘back story’ presented by a would-be visitor.
In a two-part investigation, Bellingcat and the Insider tries to determine how Russia’s security services attempted to crash through the visa firewall of the UK and other EU countries, and to obtain unconstrained access to their operational playground in Western Europe. While our investigation does not definitively prove that Russian agencies were successful in these concrete efforts, it does paint a picture of a strategic, long-term Russian effort to compromise the visa issuance system, as well as to gather intelligence on potential travelers’ plans – both from Russia to Western Europe, and the other way around.”