By Matthew Jordan
On Sunday 4th March, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were discovered unconscious on a bench in Salisbury. Initial reports stated that police believed they had been poisoned using an unknown substance.
Based on the victims’ symptoms, it’s now believed that they were deliberately targeted using a Novichok nerve agent, one of a group developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
21 people have received medical treatment following the attack, three of whom – Skripal, his daughter and Sgt. Nick Bailey, a police officer who attempted to help the pair – remain hospitalised, the first two in critical condition. Bailey, while still in serious condition, is conscious and talking. Up to 500 people may have been exposed, based on locations where traces of the nerve agent have been found, those affected being given advice on how to avoid contamination
Sergei Skripal, believed to be the main target of the assassination attempt, is a retired military intelligence colonel.
In 2006, he was convicted of passing the names of “several dozen” Russian agents around Europe to MI6. He was imprisoned until July 2010, when he was pardoned by then President Dmitry Medvedev and exchanged along with three other prisoners for ten Russian spies arrested by the FBI.
Over 250 counter-terrorism officers are involved in the investigation, with approximately 180 military personnel being deployed to aid in the clean-up process, including removing cars and other contaminated objects.
Multiple officials within the UK and among its allies have speculated that Russia is responsible for the attempt on Skripal’s life, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, who gave a statement on the matter to parliament.
“Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country or the Russian government lost control of the agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” May said, demanding a Kremlin response by the end of Tuesday. As of Wednesday morning, this does not appear to have been fulfilled.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has also allegedly told Russia’s ambassador to the UK that Moscow must provide “full and complete disclosure” of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
On Monday, the then American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the matter, stating that the attack “clearly came from Russia” and promising that it will “trigger a response”.
By contrast, the White House declined to place blame on Russia. Tillerson was then abruptly fired by President Trump on Tuesday morning, just hours later. Trump himself eventually gave some support for the UK’s assessment on Tuesday night, but remained vague on the matter, saying that the US will condemn “Russia or whoever it may be” as soon as the facts are straight and “if [the US] agree[s] with them”. The late statement, along with the unexpecting firing of Tillerson and the sudden Republican-led shutdown of the House Intelligence Committee probe into Russian election interference, only continues to generate concerns about Trump’s own relationship with Russia which maintains under study by multiple investigators.
As of Wednesday, Moscow has denied involvement in the attack, deriding the statements by officials as “pure propaganda”. When the BBC asked current President Vladimir Putin about the accusations, he replied, “Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this.”
Comparisons have been drawn with the November 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, another former spy and a Putin critic, who was killed when polonium-210 was administered to his tea, leaving him hospitalised before passing away within the month. His widow later told reporters that he blamed Putin for “everything that happened to him”.
According to Buzzfeed News, there have been at least 14 other deaths in the UK over the years that US officials suspect to have been the work of the Russian government.
As this story has developed another suspicious death has since followed, that of Russian exile Nikolai Glushkov.
While police have not found evidence connecting Glushkov’s death and the attack on Skripal, the investigations into both continue.