Honored by the Queen, targeted by Vladimir Putin—a single mid-ranking ex-diplomat found himself mixed up in a third explosive international incident last week. This time it began with a chemical weapons attack on a 66-year-old man.
Pablo Miller likely believed his days sparking global flashpoints had come to an end. He retired from the diplomatic corp after Moscow twice named him as an MI6 officer who was recruiting double-agents to betray the Kremlin. After decades of globe-trotting he settled in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury in England’s south-west.
One of the alleged double-agents was also living there from around 2011 after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War. This month, Sergei Skripal was struck down by a Soviet-era nerve agent—said to have been poisoned on the orders of Russia as payback for his betrayal.
While the Kremlin insists that Miller, 58, was the man who dragged Skripal into a Cold War standoff, the British government hasn’t acknowledged that their man was anything other than an ordinary diplomat.
Over the course of his military service in the British army and a diplomatic career in Nigeria, Estonia, and Poland, Miller left few clues about his work until Russia accused him of being a spy for MI6 and claimed he’d spent a decade squeezing secrets out of three of its citizens.
His alleged association with Skripal surfaced in the case of a Russian tax inspector convicted of spying for British intelligence in 2007. The Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic security service, claimed that inspector Vyacheslav Zharko “identified MI6 operative Pablo Miller” as one of the men involved in turning him into a spy for the British government. An FSB spokesperson also mentioned that Miller had also been “previously involved as a suspect in a criminal case against Sergei Skripal.”
By that time, Skripal was already sitting in prison in the Russian state of Mordovia, sentenced to 13 years for passing secrets to British intelligence.
British spies reportedly first recruited him in Madrid back in 1995. According to The Times, an undercover MI6 officer pitched Skripal, then working for Russian military intelligence in Spain, by suggesting that the two go into business exporting wine to Russia. MI6 gave Skripal the codename “Forthwith” and filled a secret Spanish bank account with $100,000 as payment for outing fellow spies posted across Europe.
In 2010, a Spanish court convicted former Spanish spy Roberto Flórez García of working for the Russians in the early 2000s—an act which reportedly included the betrayal of Skripal. Skripal was arrested in 2004 and proved a model prisoner. The FSB said he confessed immediately and identified Miller as his MI6 recruiter, operating under the false identity of Antonio Alvarez de Idalgo.
Little was known about Miller’s life outside his public clashes with the FSB. He served in the British Army as a member of the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Green Jackets before he joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1990. A veterans site for the Royal Tank Regiment shows a 1984 photograph of a Lt. Pablo Miller patrolling the Green Line in Cyprus, where Miller’s LinkedIn profile indicates he served.
Diplomatic lists show Miller’s first foreign posts after joining the FCO were in Nigeria, first in Abuja and later Lagos beginning in 1992 before he took a job as first secretary at the British embassy in Estonia in September 1997. He also served as a counsellor at the British embassy in Warsaw, Poland from 2010 through 2013.
In 2011, a letter was sent to the editor of The Spectator from a Pablo Miller in Warsaw praising the British Army for it’s “quiet moral courage, a belief in public service and good old-fashioned patriotism.”
The most recent public mention of his work comes from the Queen herself. In her 2015 birthday honors list, she awarded Miller, who was described as a first secretary at the foreign office, the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (an OBE) for his “service to British foreign policy.”
After Skripal was sprung from jail by the U.S. as part of a spy swap that included the release of 10 Russian sleeper agents busted in America, he resettled in Salisbury where he was reportedly close with a “security consultant” living nearby. Details about Skirpal’s friend reported by The Daily Telegraph—a recently deleted LinkedIn page, a residence in Salisbury, and work as a consultant—match some of the few facts known about Miller.
Now, Skripal lies in a hospital, the victim of what the British government says is a top secret nerve agent used against him and his daughter, Yulia, in an assassination plot allegedly ordered by the Russian government.
The attack led British Prime Minister Theresa May to boot 23 suspected spies from the Russian embassy in London and cut off diplomacy with senior Russian officials, but the Skripal affair isn’t the first time Pablo Miller has found himself in the middle of a feud between a British prime minister and Vladimir Putin. Long before the poisoning in Salisbury, Miller’s alleged recruitment of an FSB officer in Estonia caused a high-level spat between Putin and then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In 2000, the FSB identified Miller as the “head of British intelligence in Tallinn,” Estonia and accused him of recruiting an FSB officer later identified as Valery Ojamae.
According to the FSB, Ojamae was a businessman at the time of his recruitment and would meet with Miller at the Valge Villa hotel in Tallinn to pass along secrets about the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, Russia’s signals intelligence agency. Russian officials also accused Estonian intelligence of working with Ojamae alongside British intelligence.
It’s unclear when the FSB first arrested Ojamae but Russia chose to announce the arrest just a few days after a meeting between Blair and Putin in St Petersburg—Putin’s first official visit with a Western leader—and the incident tainted British attempts to build relations with the freshly appointed acting president.
In 2014, Uno Puusepp, a former employee of Estonia’s signals intelligence service, appeared in a documentary on Russian TV and claimed to have been a mole for Russian intelligence who helped send Miller’s alleged recruit, Ojamae, to a seven year prison sentence on treason charges. But some doubt Puusepp, a low level employee, had access to the secrets he claimed, viewing more senior Russian moles as likelier culprits for the betrayal of Ojamae.
The accusations against Miller made for awkward relations between Russia and the U.K. in 2000 and came at a time of intensely strained relations when he was accused once again in 2007, following the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko at the hands of what the British government says was Russian intelligence. Nearly a decade later, both Miller and Skripal appeared to have settled into quiet lives far removed from the headlines and Vladimir Putin’s fury. At least until now.