By "Emily Adjarian"
Author's note: This serial is a work of fiction. The people and events described in it spring directly from the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actually existing people and events is entirely coincidental.
London — 23rd January 2024
IN THIS EPILOGUE: Sensational claims on YouTube | A safe house in London | Philip shares a secret | A meeting in the Kremlin | What Wagner did | The affair of the coffee cups | What Karl was hiding | A message to President Zelenskyy
THE DOC's face filled the screen; then the camera zoomed out to show him seated behind an imposing desk with his hands clasped. He looked a little ill-at-ease on video calls even now, despite having done thousands of them, every one of which he had hated, during the pandemic. Through the tinted glass of the French windows there was a glimpse of Lake Geneva and the Jura mountains in the distance.
First came a few seconds of introductory music, then the sound of the other voice on the call, clearly recognisable as that of Sandra Smiley, Director Of Communications at The Circle. Sandra's tone was formal and deferential.
Sandra: "Herr Doktor, what are your thoughts and feelings in response to the events surrounding your chief of staff at The Circle, Philip Middlewait?"
The Doc: "My former chief of staff, I should say. Disappointment. Betrayal. Outrage. When Middlewait came to The Circle he was commended to me by a very senior person in the City of London, a person who had been a member of The Circle for decades, a person whom I trusted and whom I even considered a personal friend. But I did not suspect how close the ties were between the City of London and the British intelligence services. Perhaps there is no real difference between them."
Sandra: "Why do you use the word 'betrayal'?"
The Doc: "Because Middlewait was betraying my trust and the trust of every member of The Circle. He was not truly working for me at all. He was working as a spy in my office. He had access to all of my personal communications. He had physical access to all of my telephones and computers. He could send emails and make telephone calls in my name. He placed audio-recording devices in my offices. He had access to all of our records and databases. The person holding the most sensitive position at the Circle for the past 24 months was a traitor in our midst."
Sandra: "What was his objective?"
The Doc: "His aim was to compromise the telephones and email accounts and other secure channels of every member of The Circle and of every guest at every meeting of The Circle — including heads of state and government, heads of corporations, bankers, advisers, journalists. He used his access to The Circle's internet servers and to the Congress Centre's telecoms networks to ensure that zero-click spyware was installed on every mobile device that was used, even once, by anyone inside the Congress Centre."
Sandra: "He was using Pegasus, the Israeli software, to covertly intercept emails, phone calls and text messages?"
The Doc: "That, or some variant of it. I have to assume that this surveillance technology has infected the telephones and mobile devices of everybody who attended this year's meeting and very probably previous meetings too. I profoundly apologize to every one of them. I rely upon the Swiss government and the governments of the world to hold the British government to account. This attack has been a cowardly and contemptible violation of Swiss sovereignty. I hope that every government and corporation whose security has been compromised will confront the British government and its intelligence service."
The Doc disappeared from view briefly while background music played again and the screen showed a series of images of world leaders — Trump, Putin, Xi, Orban, Mohammed bin Salman, Modi, Erdogan — at meetings of The Circle. Then The Doc's face was back and the dialogue resumed.
Sandra: "Herr Doktor, must we assume that these government leaders, these victims of the British special operation, are now being spied upon not only by the British secret services but also by the American CIA, since he who pays the piper…?"
The Doc (after a deep breath): "I am not a specialist in these matters, unfortunately. What can I say? Highly likely. Yes."
Sandra: "Let me be sure that I understand the situation correctly. This special operation has enabled the British and the Americans to spy on their closest allies as well as their traditional targets, by subverting meetings of an independent foundation in a neutral country where people relaxed their guard because they believed they were among friends. And we have learned about it only because the British spy at the centre of the operation disappeared while a series of terrorist attacks was being conducted in Davos. Presumably this was not a coincidence."
The Doc: "It will be for the Swiss authorities to reveal their findings regarding the terrorist attacks. I have the greatest respect for the Swiss authorities. The Circle has always had an excellent relationship with them. I hope they will find out the truth. How much they will feel able to disclose publicly will be another matter, since, as you know, the American government is also participating in the investigations. American interests are involved, and very probably there will be things that certain American agencies will not wish to have disclosed."
Sandra: "Can you be more specific, Herr Doktor?"
The Doc: "I will do my best. I personally interpret the terrorist incidents in Davos as provocations carried out by the American services on the orders of the Biden administration. Remember that Middlewait was working for the CIA as well as the British secret service. The intention is to link the attacks to Trump sympathisers, thereby further discrediting Trump and barring his return to the presidency. I can confirm that extremists opposed to Trump's re-election were meeting privately in Davos to further their plans for a coup d'état against the American electoral process."
Sandra: "There are also credible reports that the Senator who was assassinated with NATO-issue bullets had been planning to share new compromising materials about Trump with anti-Trump conspirators at Davos."
The Doc: "I can confirm that such a meeting was planned ... "
Philip hit pause on his iPad. "Technically a quite good deep-fake", he said. "In my view they go off the rails a bit on the content side when they start getting into the Trump stuff, but many people will take it all as true, and many more will retain the core message that something is being covered up whatever that might be. I hate to imagine what The Doc will think when he sees this."
Philip and Olena were sitting in a house in London, a coach house at the end of a stuccoed terrace in Belsize Park. It was not Philip's house, apparently — nor anybody else's, to judge from the lack of bric-a-brac. But Philip had the keys, and there they were. They had flown together from Zurich to London City the previous day, and a car had been waiting for them.
Olena was staying in the house, Philip was not. He had just arrived, it was mid-morning, they had made coffee, he had just shown Olena the video posted that day to YouTube, and now he began his own explanation of events.
"On one point of fact only does that Russian deep-fake have any relationship with the truth", Philip said. "There is a department of the British Government called the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. Its existence is a matter of public record, which was not always the case. But anybody who works in the operations divisions of SIS is forbidden to tell anybody else that they work there. So you will forgive me if I neglect to confirm a possible inference here.
"The Service has been worried for years about The Circle", Philip continued. "They think it is a horrible idea for 3,000 high-value targets to get together at the same place in the Swiss Alps every year and say: 'Here are the exact rooms and the exact times at which you can take us hostage. Or blow us up. Unless you'd rather catch us on the ski slopes.' But the views of His Majesty's Government lose their salience by the time they reach Switzerland. So the Service limits itself to keeping a watchful eye on The Circle and its reckless lifestyle.
"When the Service needs new rapporteur at The Circle, HR casts around for somebody who likes skiing and reads books and has a plausible cv. Then it arranges for recommendations to go to The Doc from long-standing Circle members who are no strangers to the doors of the Service in days gone by. With luck the Trojan Horse rolls in through the gate. The Service shares any product with its American friends, who also take a lively interest in the longevity of their VIPs.
"For a long time, nothing much happened at The Circle, at least in our terms. Now and again somebody might apply for press accreditation, somebody whom we believed to have a different skill-set entirely. Somebody might check into the Belvedere with a parabolic microphone and a handgun and one would wonder: 'Where do they plan to point those things?' Then, this year, everything happened at once. Because of Ukraine, basically, and to some extent because of Wagner.
"Russia has burned its bridges with the West", Philip continued, "and the bridges will stay burned for as long as Putin is in power. Russia isn't blowing up London but it wouldn't mind if somebody else did so. It is also far from indifferent to the all-you-can-eat buffet of Western VIPs on offer in Davos each year, and we now believe that in the middle of last year the GRU, Russia's military intelligence, started contingency planning to put people in Davos in time for this year's Circle meeting, with the intention of tasking them closer to the time."
"And Wagner?", said Olena.
"I don't have to tell you what Wagner is, nor that the FSB beheaded it last year on behalf of the Russian Defence Ministry. Wagner's combat troops in Russia and Ukraine were absorbed into the regular army. The African operations were taken over by GRU. But Wagner also had special forces, very good ones, mainly for use in Africa and the Balkans. They were based in a compound outside Tver. When the mutiny happened they were cut off from the world, fed and watered, then told that they had been placed under the direct control of the Presidental Administration, reserved for special tasks. Shall I continue the monologue, or do you want a pause at this point?"
"Fast forward to December. By now the GRU has killers and kit suited to all kinds of entertainments stashed in and around Davos, courtesy of Wagner's special forces. And, obviously, when you have a resource, the temptation grows to use it, if only to wreak a bit of deniable havoc.
"Putin's right hand for this sort of thing is a man called Banashev. Blood-brother of Putin in every sense. I imagine they had a very small meeting somewhere deep in the Kremlin. GRU and FSB represented, but not MFA. Banashev says something like: 'The Wagner guys are good. I keep on telling them, no hard feelings. But they get restless. We use them or we lose them. I say use them for something they will enjoy doing. And we can keep it deniable.'
"Putin tells him not to touch the US Secretary of State, and beyond that Putin doesn't want to hear, he will be reading the newspapers with interest that week. Banashev goes back to his office and runs his finger down the Circle guest list looking for conspicuous friends of Ukraine."
"That was the Senator?" asked Olena.
"That was the Senator. Then Banashev looks for something to muddy the waters. In our world, and I think you know what I mean by that, seemingly-random killing has a quality all its own when you are pretty sure it's being done by a state actor. Does not compute. Very disorienting.
"Banashev's generation hasn't entirely discarded its predecessors' ways of thinking, so a titan of capitalism is always an attractive breakable. And a multi-purpose one. Banks have a hand in everything, good and bad. You can pop a banker and then decide later why it happened — climate justice, Gaza, Mexican cartels, Jeffrey Epstein, anything that passes the Alex Jones test."
"So that was the banker."
"So that was the banker. Conspiracy theories connecting his death with Trump are a bonus, from the Russian point of view.
"As for the helicopter, it was pure opportunism, not to say pure evil. Lots of helicopters get chartered, that one got chosen. A chance for the Wagner guys to do what they do best, refresh their skills, admire their own handiwork on television, which they didn't get a chance to do often in the Congo. They would doubtless have been told that the helicopter, maybe the entire Circle, was filled with CIA agents and that all kills were good — not that they would have cared."
Philip was showing traces of anger in his voice. He paused, and reverted to his discursive tone.
"I mentioned that the people who did the initial planning were GRU, but the operatives and close support were from Wagner. Are you following?"
"Very much so."
"Now, think of the Russian Presidential Administration as a cabal of cuthroats."
"I already do", Olena shot back.
"At the top, they work as a consolidated unit around Putin when Putin is there. But they each have their personal pathologies.
"We think that Putin possesses a significant degree of realism, in the political sense only. He knows that he will have to end the war in Ukraine at some point and negotiate a peace. He expects to get part of the country but not all of it. Sorry, Olena, that's how it looks.
"Banashev doesn't see things that way. He thinks they can get the whole of Ukraine if they stick at it. If there isn't much of Ukraine left above ground by that point that's fine by Banashev. That's where you come in."
"I hang on your every word", said Olena.
"There is a feeling, at least in the corridors of the West, that Putin will talk if Zelenskyy will talk. There is also a feeling that Zelenskyy is more likely to talk, and eventually to accept the loss of Donbass, even of Crimea, if he can count on money flooding into his part of Ukraine pretty much the next day. The heating goes back on, buildings go up, jobs for everyone, EU membership ahead. Meanwhile, in the Russian lands, they are burning balalaikas for firewood.
"Of course people in Ukraine will still say that Zelenskyy lost the war, especially the people who were fighting the war. They will be angry as hell. He will need close protection for the rest of his life. But he can say that he won the peace, that he built the Ukraine that worked, and history will vindicate him"
The sheer coherence of Philip's explanation was starting to bewilder Olena. But Philip was not nearly finished.
"Banashev cannot do much to change the course of the war on the ground, but he can interfere with anything that might lead to peace. So when at some point in their researches Banashev's people decided that you were Zelenskyy's indispensable person for the reconstruction plan, that made you a piece to be removed from the board, since a reconstruction plan would be a precondition for a peace deal. Of course you would be replaced, but almost certainly by somebody less credible. Reconstruct Ukraine would spin its wheels for a while and might never quite get its traction back."
"So the train thing was about me", said Olena.
"It was", confirmed Philip. "Alain Girard wasn't Wagner, obviously, or even quite GRU. But he was dangerous in his way. We had a file on him. That's how I first knew that something was going on.
"I don't know if you read Alexander Dugin, the man whose daughter was killed, but your people were not entirely wrong in their assessment of him. Dugin's admirers are practically a religious cult. Dugin preaches a mumbo-jumbo vision of a holy Russia with prehistoric roots. He says the Russians are a chosen people whose destiny is to reconquer the Russian Empire in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church, and he prays for a new tsar modelled on Ivan the Terrible. He thinks Putin is a step in the right direction, but not nearly terrible enough.
"Girard bought into all that. He translated one of Dugin's books. He got himself on to the GRU's radar. Dugin's father was GRU. Perhaps the GRU asked Dugin himself or somebody like him to talk to Girard and persuade Girard that he could render a great service to Russia."
"The great service being to poison me?", Olena asked.
"Correct", replied Philip. "They gave Girard the poison in a dropper. They also gave Girard himself a large dose of amphetamine, presumably telling him that it would keep him alert, soldiers took it all the time. The intended effect was to disable his inhibitions. He was an amateur, he might bottle. Suitably revved-up, he would feel as though he could do anything — though his concentration would have been jumping all over the place.
"Girard had a handler as far as the train door. The GRU also put a tail on you, and the tail watched you buy coffee at the station. They hadn't determined exactly how the deed would be done, Girard would have to choose his opportunity, but here was one option. Your GRU tail bought a coffee identical to yours, gave it to Girard, and Girard got into your carriage."
"So he did mix up the coffees?"
"Fortunately, yes. I'm amazed that he then drank any coffee at all, given what he knew. You abandoned your cups merely because you thought he might have touched one of them, without having the slightest idea of what was at stake. But that's another thing about amphetamines. They bring on a thirst. Not to mention states of distraction, as when Girard confused the cups."
"A similar nerve agent was used, in the form of a gel. Applied by his neighbour, that nice lady who turned to ask him what was wrong when he felt ill. She would have asked him to hold something for a moment, perhaps while she took off her coat or jumper. He would not have noticed that she was wearing skin-tight transparent graphene gloves. Almost invisible. Your own proximity was a coincidence but you did have a connection with him through Karl Manhof.
"Karl is not a crook. He is a hedge-fund guy and actually quite ethical by those standards. He is clever and he likes being clever. Rich, if not as rich as he lets people think. He believes that Ukraine can and should be reconstructed. He believes that your reconstruction plan can be the key to a peace deal. He believes that he can make lots of money while doing good in Ukraine. In many ways he is your ideal business partner."
"There is a 'but' coming, isn't there?"
"But he is also an ideal business partner for the Dobrovo Group. They are by no means the worst of all Russian oligarchs. They have long been cleared for all sorts of sensitive business in the West and they have made huge investments here which are now variously sanctioned and frozen. They are also stalwarts of The Circle, though that is incidental.
"Dobrovo is grown-up enough to take a long-term view of the world. Its CEO was born in Ukraine. Dobrovo sees post-war Ukraine as a country with massive potential, more so than Russia. They are on-side with the European destiny of Ukraine and all that. They want to be back in there, all the more so if their own frozen assets are going to be spent there. They would like to help with the spending."
"So they talked to Karl?"
"So they talked to Karl. They were ready to work with him on his usual terms. If he got his two and twenty then fine by them. But they wanted the offsets, the carbon credits, for themselves. They had done the math, they knew there was fantastic free money for the person with the right rubber stamp.
"In exchange for the offsets, Dobrovo would deliver Putin to the table. It would be Putin's decision of course, but Dobrovo could manipulate the people that Putin saw regularly and the things that got reported to him. Banashev, for example, would test positive for Covid. Putin would conclude of his own free will that peace was now in the Russian interest, and would act accordingly.
"But Dobrovo did want all the offsets. And to help Karl see how easily that could be arranged, they commissioned an expert study on how carbon credits could be created, certified, and traded in Ukraine."
Olena gave a swallow. "A study from Massover?"
Philip nodded. "Top carbon consultant in the field. It was an excellent study. I read it myself. The only oversight was, they neglected to tell Massover that they themselves would exercise effective control of the certifying body.
When Massover discovered that detail later, in a conversation with Karl of all people, Massover was horrified. He said they couldn't do it that way, he was implicated, he would report them to the EU and the UN etc etc".
"They must have been terrified", said Olena. It was a joke.
"Just so. Nobody was terrified, but Karl was angry. He was in constant touch with Dobrovo and a few other not unrelated people and we rather imagine that he said something to somebody along these lines: 'This Massover is going to ruin everything. If only we could be rid of him'. As a result of which, we had a Becket-type situation, with Massover as turbulent priest. I can't draw you a precise diagram of the kill-chain, but somebody talked to somebody and so on until an offer came back from somebody in the loop at GRU to do the job almost as a favour, since they had people in place who could use the exercise."
"And the arrested oligarchs?", asked Olena.
Philip explained to her that the Ukrainian oligarch, whom the Swiss police had pulled out of a Circle session together with his Slovakian neighbour, had approached Philip in the Congress Centre on the opening day of the Circle meeting, the day after the helicopter crash.
The oligarch told Philip that he had received a message from a "former associate" who was now an undeclared FSB agent in Geneva (the oligarch gave a wry smile as if to say, such was life) and who claimed to possess verifiable signal intercepts tying the sabotage of the helicopter to a person of interest at a senior level in the Russian government.
"He wants to sell the intercepts", the oligarch had told Philip. "For cash. Then disappear. He says he has done a lot of things for the FSB and they are not always nice things and he is getting old. He says they already know he has gone and will soon know he has taken the intercepts which were not his to take. He says: 'Tell this to Philip Middlewait'. So now I tell you. And that is all. I am not an asker of questions. Thank you."
Philip told the oligarch that, in his capacacity of chef de cabinet to the chief executive of The Circle, the request fell outside his usual remit, he could not think why it had been directed to him, but now he came to think about it, there probably was someone to whom he could pass it on.
Philip went to his office, used his private laptop, and ordered a spot trace on the oligarch's "former associate", which came back almost at once. A man existed with the name which the oligarch had given to Philip, he was presumed FSB, he had been in place for a while, he hadn't just been invented for the purposes of a dangle.
Then Philip ordered a deep trace, and learned that there had been four or five coded signals in the previous couple of hours out of the Russian UN Mission in Geneva reporting that "Anatoly" had "taken an unplanned leave of absence".
After which Philip ordered a deep trace on the Ukrainian oligarch himself, and was provided with a long list of horrible things which, regrettably, made the tip-off more likely to be authentic.
Philip went to meet "Anatoly" that same night. Anatoly was indeed waiting for him, on the Seehorn mountain just outside Davos. But so were three other people, all of them with guns. Philip fled the scene before they spotted him. He went directly to a house in town rented by the American Secret Service contingent, where he was given a bed, and, later, breakfast; which was when Philip disappeared from view as far as The Doc and everybody else was concerned.
"I am afraid, Olena", said Philip, as he wrapped up this account, "that there is also a bit of unfinished business here".
"We didn't want to spoil President Zelenskyy's day in Davos", he continued, "so when we escorted the two men out of the session, we expressed our concerns to them, and then the Swiss Police invited them to leave the country. All done with a minimum of fuss and absolutely no publicity.
"I do admire Zelenskyy's Churchillian spirit, a little less his choice of friends. Karl was right when he said to you that there were rules in Brussels, and one of those rules was 'no stealing of our money by oligarchs', a rule which OLAF is actually quite efficient at enforcing."
"How did you ...?" Olena interrupted, then stopped when she remembered the brooch. They had been listening to everything.
"The upshot is that His Majesty's Government" continued Philip, "which is no longer a member of the EU but is an admirer of Reconstruct Ukraine, and of President Zelenskyy, and of you, would be only too pleased if you were to find a moment to talk again to President Zelenskyy.
"You might say to him that it would be a pity if oligarchs in general and this Mr Moneybags in particular were to get in the way of his reconstruction programme. So please would he put Mr Moneybags in jail, and if that has to be preceded by a trial then we have a long list of things with which to charge him. Mr Moneybags is not quite Mr Mogilevich, but near enough. He also has several fingers in the pie which Karl is cooking, to strain a metaphor, although Karl doesn't know that.
"If President Zelenskyy locks up Mr Moneybags, he will be our hero of the day. If we have to deal with Mr Moneybags ourselves, then President Zelenskyy, while still very much admired, will get a very faint question mark pencilled in beside his name."
"Message received", said Olena. "And now let's talk about you, Philip. I don't suppose you will be going back to The Circle."
Philip burst out laughing, the first time Olena had seen him laugh out loud since he had watched her fall over while they were skiing together five years earlier.
"It's time for The Doc to find a new chief of staff", Philip said, still smiling broadly, then turning more serious. "It's also time for The Circle to find a new Doc, if you ask me. And it's time for The Circle to throw in the towel entirely if you ask some people in HMG."
"So where will you go".
"Don't know. Can't say. Sometimes we make our own rain. A period in London, I imagine. Being denounced on YouTube, even in a deep-fake, makes one stand out a bit, though memories do fade.
"Speaking of which", Philip went on, "I don't know if Reconstruct Ukraine has thought of setting up a London representative office, which in my personal view it clearly requires. You would then need a representative. I can recommend somebody for the job who is a British national, who speaks decent Russian, German and French, who would like to improve his Ukrainian, who admires Ukraine, and who knows his way around the chancelleries of Europe."
Olena was stunned into silence. Philip would work for her? Well, some of the time anyway, and the other things he did seemed to be in the Western interest and therefore in the Ukrainian interest. He had a stellar cv, he had effectively run The Circle day-to-day which was no small thing, he could help cope with Karl if his arrival didn't scare Karl away. In fact she should have thought of this herself.
"Let me think about that", she said.