'The main problem for Urban, of course, is that the Skripal story is still unfolding so fast that any attempt at a definitive account must at this point feel incomplete. The first two-thirds of the book, based on his extensive interviews with Skripal, provide an original and often fascinating read on the games that spies played in the wake of the Cold War; but what we really want to know is what happened in Salisbury. Once his narrative reaches the Skripals’ fateful visit to a Zizzi restaurant (not until page 213), it becomes harder for Urban to keep up with the daily headlines'
The Skripal Files is a compelling first instalment of a story that will continue. Urban’s deadline came too early to include details of the suspected would-be killers – a pair of career GRU officers, caught on CCTV. They were mocked at home and abroad after explaining in an interview that they went to Salisbury twice to see the city’s beguiling cathedral spire – and turned back on the first trip because of daunting slush. But there is nothing funny about Moscow’s efforts to reshape the world. Putin, it appears, is fond of using exotic state murder as a way of instilling terror. The GRU has had a bad few months. But it will carry on, plotting new crimes and tracking new targets.
Urban knew Skripal before the attack. The two men had long conversations about East-West espionage last year and this gives the book a special texture... Urban, though, has produced a shrewd book at high speed about an extraordinary event. Other books will follow on the Skripals, but they will struggle to match the texture of Urban’s research, its knowledgeable hinterland.
The problem with Urban’s account is that it is fine as far as it goes. But Urban’s meetings with Skripal took place in 2017, before the GRU decided to attempt the most audacious assassination in the history of modern espionage. Since then a tight veil of secrecy has descended on the Skripals, with the intelligence establishment refusing to allow any access, even to well-disposed journalists like Urban. Consequently, Urban is unable to answer burning questions, such as whether Skripal, prior to the attack, was engaged in any activity that might have provoked the GRU’s ire.
Urban has done a decent enough job on giving the background to the Skripal affair. Now we need to know who was responsible for the attack, and their real motive for dumping a lethal nerve agent on the streets of an English cathedral city.