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Former CIA Chief Of Russia Operations On Poisoning Of Putin's Rival With Novichok

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It allegedly started with a teacup at an airport in Siberia two weeks ago. Then came an emergency landing, a medical evacuation to Germany and this announcement yesterday from German authorities - Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, poisoned with a form of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Today Navalny is in a medically induced coma. He is expected to survive. Steve Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after three decades running Russian operations, and he's here now.

Hey, there.

STEVE HALL: Hey. Good to be with you.

KELLY: So what's your reaction to this twist that, according to German doctors, Navalny was not only poisoned but poisoned by Novichok?

HALL: You know, it is interesting that they're still using Novichok. But it's really not surprising at all that we've had this assassination attempt on a guy like Navalny. These are intelligence operations. It's the Russian intelligence services that are responsible for doing this.

But if you just look back at the history, I mean, it's really amazing. You know, you've got Skripal, of course, in the U.K. A lot of people don't remember that, you know, just a year ago in Germany, you had a guy by the name of Khangoshvili who was a Chechen who was basically shot, while walking in a park, by a Russian operative. So you know, there's - you can go back as far as Trotsky to Mexico City, Markov, the famous poisoned umbrella. This is something that the Russians do on a regular basis. And frankly, I'm just surprised that it's taken them this long to act against Navalny.

KELLY: OK. A couple of things to follow up on in what you just said - one, you ascribe this to Russian intelligence services. Is there any doubt in your mind that there could be any other explanation, that there's any way that a military-grade nerve agent would have found its way into Navalny's body unless someone very senior in Russia's government and intelligence services wanted it there?

HALL: No, there's no doubt whatsoever. I mean, I'm looking forward - and we're already beginning to see it - some of the creative work that is being done right now inside the Kremlin to offer other explanations. But there really is no other way to explain this. And this is something, again, that the Russian intelligence services have been doing literally for decades, if not longer.

KELLY: Does this fit a pattern of increased aggression? Aside from poisoning critics, managing to shoot critics, critics of the regime falling out of windows, we've also seen military operations - Russian subs surfacing recently off the coast of Alaska, for example.

HALL: Yeah. And I - you know, the way I interpret this is that you've got Russia, which is trying to hold on to its great power status, trying to exert its geopolitical force. It's using both common ways to do that, like you know, military contact - whether it's ramming an American military vehicle in the Middle East or whether it's, as you mentioned, you know, surfacing a sub off the coast of Alaska.

You know, there's an old saying that's attributed, I think, to Vladimir Lenin, which is that when using a bayonet, push, you know, as long as you find mush, and then you have to stop when you hit steel. Right now the Russians are sensing mush, not just in the United States but in the West. And they're going to continue to push and do these types of things until such time as they get a whack on the nose, as they get strong pushback from either the United States or, in this case, Germany or perhaps the U.K.

KELLY: What would that look like, strong pushback? What should the consequences be from the West?

HALL: You know, that's always the question. I think that what's happened with regard to Russia is they've become somewhat immune to the standard response, which is economic sanctions. You have Vladimir Putin actually telling the Russian people - look; we're going to have sanctions with us from the West pretty much forever. So that's sort of become of limited utility.

So then you ask yourself, well, what are the other options? In the German case here, this is very interesting because they're about to - the Russians and the Germans are about to complete a pipeline called Nord Stream 2 to bring natural gas to Germany. The obvious move here, if you really wanted to express your strong concern or if the Germans did, would be to cancel that plan or not carry forward with it. But of course, that has economic impact on Germany. It just really depends on whether, you know, the Germans or others have the stomach to say, OK, we're upping the ante to make a strong point to Russia. So we'll see whether that happens or not.

KELLY: Well, so what outstanding questions are on your mind? I'm thinking of the current generation of CIA officers sitting right now in the CIA station in Moscow. What would they be trying to figure out?

HALL: Well, you know, you always want to try to get, you know, plans and intentions as to when the next Russian atrocity is going to happen. And that in and of itself is an interesting question because, to date, we have not yet seen any types of these poison or other types of attacks - assassination attempts - inside the United States. And so that's going to be a big question is, OK, they've already done it in the U.K. They've done it in Germany. They've done it in some other European locations. The question is, will that ever come to the United States? And that's an interesting question that I would be trying to follow very carefully if I were back in my old job.

KELLY: That is former CIA chief of Russia operations. Steve Hall, many thanks.

HALL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.