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Russian Spy Saga

How Were Sergei Skripal and his Daughter Attacked with Deadly Nerve Agent?

 

Members of the emergency services in green biohazard encapsulated suits afix the tent over the bench where a man and a woman were found on March 4 in critical condition at The Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, southern England, on March 8, 2018 after the tent became detached. (Getty Images)

by Yasmine El-Geressi

Ever since the story of the poisoning of retired Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, broke on March 5, it has led news bulletins in Britain and dominated the news around the world. Skripal, who was given refuge in the UK after being jailed in his home country for treason, was found unconscious on a bench alongside a 33-year-old woman in a local shopping centre in Salisbury. The incident drew inevitable comparison with the 2006 poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko using radioactive polonium-210. He died, and Russia-UK relations took a hit. Twelve years on and against the backdrop of a new geopolitical climate, Russia has become the designated suspect when it comes to political interference and media meddling – with allegations against them in the United States through to Germany and Italy. In Russia, the story was initially met with stony silence on most state publications. Later that silence was replaced with denial and angry accusations of “phobia”, “hype” and “hysterical propaganda” by the British press aimed at whipping up anti-Russian sentiment. Regardless of what state-run TV channel you turn on, the British government’s accusation that Russia was involved in the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergej Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury is flatly rejected.

British police say the investigation is dynamic and fast-paced. The scale and scope is unprecedented. About 500 detectives, police officers and staff are involved, supported by 200 military personnel. Add in the paramedics and firefighters, and about 1,000 members of the emergency services and military are involved.  But over two weeks after the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury, fundamental questions about the attack remain unanswered.

MEDIA SPECULATION

Within three days of the attack on March 4, the Ministry of Defence’s Porton Down laboratory said a nerve agent had been used. On March 12, Prime Minister Theresa May said it was novichok, a poison developed in the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s and ’80s. But while investigators say it is “highly likely” that the weapon originated in Russia, nothing has been revealed about how the poison was administered and who might have done it, fueling speculation and theories by the British media.

Four days after the news broke, The Sunday Times published 6 circulating theories fed by important questions about the method and timing of the Skirpal attack, giving each a possibility rating out of 5. The highest rated theory, with a possibility rating of 3.5 out of 5, was one The Times called “Stop The Clock,” in which it suspects that President Putin was not the mastermind behind the attack, but rather that he was the political target. It refers to an incident in 1984 where secret police tortured to death a Polish Solidary priest to stop Russia’s military ruler making concessions to the West. “There may be a fear in Moscow that Mr Putin, once re-elected, will reshuffle the cliques around him, weaken the grip of the security lobby and seek a deal with the West on Ukraine. This attack could send relations into deep freeze and thwart Mr Putin,” wrote The Times. 

The second highest rated theory is one The Times referred to as the “Mouse On The Doorstep,” which compares President Putin’s outburst on the subject of traitors to Henry II who asked who would rid him of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170. The article mentions that Putin’s last threat was in 2010 and asks who would have followed up on this to please the president. “A clue lies in the 2015 shooting of the opposition Boris Nemtsov by Chuchens including a bodyguard of the ruthless Putin loyalist, Ramzan Kadyrov. Like Mr Skripal, the Russian dissident was targeted in a public space. Observers compared it to a cat dropping a dead mouse on the doorstep of its owner.”

A bouquet of fresh flowers laid by former Russian spy Sergei Skripal at his wife’s grave became a primary focus of the forensic inquiry into his poisoning, a source close to the inquiry told the Daily Mail in an article published on March 11. Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, visited the cemetery where his wife Liudmila is buried just hours before they collapsed in Salisbury city centre. It is believed the flowers may have been contaminated with the nerve agent. “The highly placed source, who was briefed yesterday about the inquiry’s latest developments, told this newspaper that one extraordinary new line of inquiry is that the bouquet may have been laced with poison. ‘It can’t be ruled out,’ he said,” The Daily Mail reported.

A chemical weapons expert told The Guardian in an article published on March 14, that he believed the nerve agent, a novichok, was most likely in powder form and the means of delivery could have been as simple as a letter. The article mentions that the police officer taken ill, DS Nick Bailey, may have fallen ill after visiting his home, suggesting that the house remains crucial. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commander of the now-disbanded Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, said it was “plausible” that the nerve agent could have arrived in the post or in a gift. “You open a letter and the stuff goes all over the place,” he said.  “It is equally plausible that an agent could have delivered it. You only need to drop a small amount in someone’s pocket or brush past them.”

The Daily Star Sunday reported on March 18, that British intelligence sources fear a Russian assassination team could have used a weaponised miniature drone to Poison Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The article said that a remote-controlled gadget carrying the nerve agent may have hovered above the pair as they sat on a bench in Salisbury before spraying them with the substance. A source told the news site: “Every single possible scenario is being looked at. We know the Russians have been experimenting with weaponised miniature drones…It is entirely possible that it [the drone] was used to carry the nerve agent and this would explain the almost complete lack of an evidence trail.”

Forensic teams remove a recovery truck used in the aftermath of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, on March 14, 2018 in Gillingham, England. (Getty Images)

THE POLICE INVESTIGATION

In the early days of the inquiry, the focus of the police investigation was on the Bishop’s Mill pub. The pair had visited the restaurant and the pub in the hours before they were found, leading to speculation that they could have consumed the poison. As counter-terror police took charge of the investigation, greater attention was paid to Mr Skripal’s house. On 15 March, it was reported by The Telegraph, which quoted anonymous sources, that intelligence agencies believe that the rare toxin could have been hidden in Yulia’s suitcase and brought to the UK when she arrived on March 3 from Moscow. The source claimed that agents were said to be working on the theory the substance was “impregnated” in clothing, cosmetics or a gift that was opened in her father’s home. The vehicle used to pick up Yulia Skripal from Heathrow when she arrived in the UK from Moscow was also seized by the military for forensic testing. The development further suggests that detectives believe the Novichok nerve agent used to poison both the 33-year-old and her father, Russian spy Sergei Skripal, a fortnight ago may have been unwittingly carried over by her from Russia the previous day

Since last week, Mr Skripal’s burgundy BMW has become another focus of the investigation. Members of the military were photographed loading the car into a metal cargo container and taking it away from a recovery firm called Ashley Wood on the Churchfields industrial estate in Salisbury. Theories have since emerged to suggest that the door handle could have been smeared with the poison, or it could have been distributed through the car’s air vents.­­

Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief, Neil Basu, said he was confident that the culprits who left the Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, critically ill would be found but that the inquiry would be prolonged. Asked if the focus was on Skripal’s BMW, following speculation that it may have been sabotaged, Basu said: “Our focus is on the movements of the Skripals. We are open minded and will follow that evidence wherever it takes us.” The notion that the investigation could last until the summer at least was supported by the arrival of steel barriers behind the Mill pub, one of the places the Skripals visited before they fell ill.

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