Geopolitics

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold War

John Le Carre ambiance at London Stansted airport
John Le Carre ambiance at London Stansted airport

-Analysis-

Former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in critical condition, three days after they were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury. The pair were presumably poisoned by what is so far referred to as an "unknown substance."

Britain's counter-terrorism police have now taken over the investigation, and already, the finger of suspicion is pointing towards Moscow, in large part because of similarities between this case and the 2006 poisoning of another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London. A public inquiry concluded that the Litvinenko murder was "probably" carried out with the approval of Vladimir Putin.

Another reason for suspecting Moscow's hand comes from 2010 video footage in which the Russian president himself warns Russian spies not to betray their country. "Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me," Putin remarks. "Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them." The video was made the same year Skripal, who had been sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment in Russia, was released as part of a spy swap.

But there's more, as Moscow correspondent Emmanuel Grynszpan writes in the Swiss daily Le Temps: "On Monday, March 5, before news of the incident was made public, Vladimir Putin congratulated the Russian secret services for neutralizing more than 400 foreign spies last year. Speaking in front of his former colleagues from the FSB, of which he once was director, he asked them to keep up their efforts to block ‘any attempts of foreign intelligence services to obtain political, economic, technical and military information.""

Alexander Litvinkenko hospitalized in London in Nov. 2006 — Source: Steve Baker

"The spy mania is unfolding against a backdrop of nuclear rivalry revived by the Russian president's annual state of the nation speech last week," Grynszpan adds. "On March 1, Vladimir Putin said that Russia had developed four new types of ‘invincible" nuclear weapons without their equal anywhere in the world, capable of piercing through any defense system, giving his country strategic superiority."

The timing for both the suspected Russian poisoning of Skripal and the nuclear weapon boast indeed raises many questions, not least because of the upcoming presidential election, set to take place March 18.

"Did Vladimir Putin wave paper missiles to fan the electorate's patriotic flame two weeks from the election?" Grynszpan asks. "Or is it just scare tactics to force Washington to renegotiate some cases that are annoying Moscow? In power for 18 years, Vladimir Putin continues to capitalize on an alleged Russian humiliation that resulted from the break-up of the USSR, which he's described in the past as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." By proclaiming that ‘Russia containment has failed," he's challenging the outcome of the Cold War and trying to appear in the eyes of the Russian population as the instrument of their revenge against the United States."

It's meant to be a reminder to other Russian operatives of the potential risks of working with foreign intelligence agencies.

The logic regarding the timing of Putin's nuclear weapon boast seems implacable. But what if the real motive behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal — if Moscow is indeed behind it — was to be found elsewhere? This is the theory defended in The Guardian by reporter Shaun Walker.

"Suggestions that this could be some kind of vote-winning ploy, coming two weeks before presidential elections Vladimir Putin is certain to win, seem unconvincing," Walker writes. "Many Russians are patriotic and have bought into the Kremlin's aggressive new foreign policy, but it is unlikely that the assassination of a former spy of whom few had heard would do much to whip up popular passions."

More likely it's meant to be a deterrent, a reminder to other Russian operatives of the potential risks of working with foreign intelligence agencies, the reporter argues.

"Every year, Russia's top security officials speak of active attempts by the CIA and other western agencies to recruit Russians. Part of this is propaganda for domestic consumption, but there is no doubt that western spy agencies are active in Russia," The Guardian piece reads.

Suspicions abound. And yet, like with the Litvinenko case, we might never find out for certain who poisoned Skripal and his daughter — or why. Still, one thing that is clear from the events of the past few days is that the relentless power struggle between Russia and the West isn't just taking place in Syria.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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