Poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal
|Poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal|
A blue forensics tent covers the bench in Salisbury city centre where the Skripals fell unconscious
|Location||Salisbury, England, United Kingdom|
|Date||4 March 2018|
|Target||Sergei and Yulia Skripal|
As of 13 March 2018, they remain critically ill at Salisbury District Hospital, while a police officer who was investigating the incident is also seriously ill. The poisoning is being investigated by British authorities as attempted murder. On 14 March, the British government formally accused the Russian state of attempted murder and expelled 23 Russian diplomats who may have been spying on the UK. It also updated members of the UN Security Council on the investigation. The United Kingdom, United States, France, and Germany issued a joint statement condemning Russia for the attack, writing that it was an assault on UK sovereignty and a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention and international law. Russia denied involvement.
Within days of the incident, 180 armed forces personnel were mobilised to assist in moving contaminated vehicles and search the city for any other traces of a nerve agent. The investigation has come to focus on Sergei Skripal's home and car, a bench where the victims were found unconscious, a restaurant in which they dined and a pub where they had drinks.
In the 1990s, Skripal was an officer for Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and he worked as a double agent for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service from 1995 until his arrest in Moscow in December 2004. Two years later, he was convicted of high treason and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He settled in the UK in 2010 following the Illegals Programspy swap. According to Russia, Yulia Skripal is a Russian citizen; Sergei Skripal is a British citizen.
On 4 March 2018, Skripal, a 66-year-old resident of Salisbury, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, who had flown into London's Heathrow Airport from Russia the previous day, were found unconscious on a public bench near a shopping centre in Salisbury. Paramedics took them to Salisbury District Hospital where medical staff determined that the pair had been poisoned with a nerve agent. The police declared a major incident as multiple agencies were involved. Following the incident, health authorities checked 21 members of the emergency services and the public for symptoms; three police officers were hospitalised – two had minor injuries, while one, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who had been sent to Sergei Skripal's house, was in a serious condition. As of 11 March 2018 Skripal and his daughter remain critically ill, and Bailey is seriously ill but stable.
On 6 March, it was agreed under the National Counter Terrorism Policing Network that the Counter Terrorism Command based within the Metropolitan Police would take over the investigation from Wiltshire Police. Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, head of Counter Terrorism Policing, appealed for witnesses to the incident following a COBR meeting chaired by Home SecretaryAmber Rudd. Samples of the nerve agent used in the attack tested positive at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down for a "very rare" poison, which Prime Minister Theresa May identified on 12 March as one of the Novichok agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
On 9 March, 180 military experts in chemical warfare defence and decontamination, as well as 18 vehicles, were deployed to assist the Metropolitan Police to remove vehicles and objects from the scene and look for any further traces of the nerve agent. The personnel were drawn mostly from the Army, including instructors from the Defence CBRN Centre and the 29 Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search Group, as well as from the Royal Marines and Royal Air Force. The vehicles included TPz Fuchs operated by Falcon Squadron from the Royal Tank Regiment. On 11 March, the UK government advised those present at The Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury on 4 and 5 March to wash or wipe their possessions, emphasising that the risk to the general public was low.
By 14 March, the investigation was focused on Skripal's home and car, a bench where the two fell unconscious, a restaurant in which they dined, and a pub where they had drinks.
Reactions and commentary
On 8 March 2018, UK Home Secretary Rudd said that the use of a nerve agent on UK soil was a "brazen and reckless act" of attempted murder "in the most cruel and public way". Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, said that the evidence indicated that the Russian government ordered the attempted murder, citing similarities to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and prior threats against Skripal's life. On 12 March 2018, speaking in the House of Commons, prime minister Theresa May delivered a statement on the incident, saying:
It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as 'Novichok'. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others."
May also said that the UK government requested that Russia explain which of these two possibilities it was by the end of 13 March 2018. She also said: "[T]he extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006. And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvinenko." She said that the UK government would "consider in detail the response from the Russian State" and in the event that there was no credible response, the government would "conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom" and measures would follow. British media billed the statement as "Theresa May's ultimatum to Putin."
The UK, and subsequently NATO, requested Russia provide "full and complete disclosure" of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
On 13 March 2018, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd ordered an inquiry by the police and security services into alleged Russian state involvement in previous suspicious deaths of Russian exiles and businessmen in the UK.
A spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin was on 6 March quoted as saying, "We see this tragic situation, but we don't have information on what could have led to this, what he was engaged in". On 12 March 2018, both Vladimir Putin and his spokesman dismissed questions about the incident from the press as not relevant for the Russian government, with Peskov explaining that no official representation about the issue had been made from the UK government, whereas "the aforesaid Russian citizen had worked for one of Britain's secret services" and the incident occurred on British soil.
Following Theresa May’s 12 March statement in Parliament, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, talking to the Russian press on 13 March, referred to the statement as "an ultimatum from London" and endorsed remarks made by the ministry’s spokesperson the day prior, who called May’s statement "a circus show in the British parliament"; he added that the procedure stipulated by the Chemical Weapons Convention should be followed whereunder Russia was entitled to have access to the substance in question and 10 days to respond. He called allegations about Russia’s complicity "balderdash". The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, speaking on a Russian state television channel on the evening of 13 March, said that no one had the right to present Russia with 24 hour ultimatums. On the evening of 13 March 2018, the Russian Embassy in London posted a tweet that said that Russia had served a diplomatic note rejecting any involvement in the Salisbury incident. The Embassy posted several other tweets on 13 March that said that Moscow would not respond to London’s ultimatum until it received samples of the chemical substance to which the UK investigators were referring.
On 12 March 2018, following Theresa May's statement in Parliament, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement that fully supported the stance of the UK government on the poisoning attack, including "its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury". The following day, U.S. president Donald Trump said that Russia was likely responsible.
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, made the statement to a meeting of the executive council that the use of a nerve agent to poison Skripals was "of serious concern" and added: "It is extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used to harm people. Those found responsible for this use must be held accountable for their actions."
European Union and member states
European Commission Vice-PresidentFrans Timmermans argued for "unequivocal, unwavering and very strong" European solidarity with the United Kingdom when speaking to lawmakers in Strasburg on 13 March. Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, expressed shock and offered the block's support. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator proclaimed solidarity with the British people.
French foreign ministerJean-Yves Le Drian called the incident "a totally unacceptable attack". His ministry's statement did not mention Russia. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, condemned the attack "in the sharpest manner". Norbert Röttgen, a federal minister in Angela Merkel’s government and chairman of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said the incident demonstrated the need for Britain to review its open-door policy towards Russian capital of dubious origin.
On March 14 2018, NATO issued an official response to the attack. The alliance expressed its deep concern over the first offensive use of a nerve agent on its territory since its foundation and pointed out that the attack clearly was in breach of international treaties. It called on Russia to fully disclose its research of the Novichok agent to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Russian state media
For a few days following the poisoning, Russian state-run mainstream media outlets largely ignored the incident.
On 7 March 2018, anchor Kirill Kleimyonov of the state TV station Channel One Russia's current affairs programme Vremya said that being "a traitor to the motherland" was one of the most hazardous professions and warned: "Don't choose England as a next country to live in. Whatever the reasons, whether you're a professional traitor to the motherland or you just hate your country in your spare time, I repeat, no matter, don't move to England. Something is not right there. Maybe it's the climate, but in recent years there have been too many strange incidents with a grave outcome. People get hanged, poisoned, they die in helicopter crashes and fall out of windows in industrial quantities." Kleimyonov's commentary was accompanied by a report highlighting previous suspicious Russia-related deaths in the UK, namely those of financier Alexander Perepilichny, businessman Boris Berezovsky, ex-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, and radiation expert Matthew Puncher. Puncher discovered that Litvinenko was poisoned by polonium; he died in 2016, five months after a trip to Russia.
On 11 March 2018, the host of the Vesti Nedeli on Russian state television (Russia-1 channel of VGTRK), Dmitry Kiselyov, said that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, who was "completely wrung out and of little interest" as a source, was only advantageous to the British to "nourish their Russophobia" and organise the boycott of the FIFA World Cup scheduled for June 2018. Kiselyov referred to London as a "pernicious place for Russian exiles".
The prominent Russian television hosts' warnings to Russians living in the UK were echoed by a similar direct warning from a senior member of the Russian Federation Council, Andrey Klimov, who said: "It's going to be very unsafe for you."
Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations Prague said that, assuming the poison attack was engineered by Moscow, said such act would violate the unwritten rules whereby exchanged agents would enjoy immunity. Galeotti surmised that Moscow might have thought that Skripal "was back in the game — working for British intelligence or another intelligence agency". Amy Knight, an American historian of the Soviet Union and Russia, said that the apart from pandering to his electorate's nationalist sentiments, Putin and his entourage had a message for the West: "You know we did it, and you know and we know you’re not going to do anything about it."
Aftermath and international consequences
Within days of the attack, political pressure began to mount on Theresa May's government to take decisive action against the perpetrators, and most politicians believed that the Russian government was behind the attack. The situation was complicated by Russian president Vladimir Putin facing his fourth presidential election in mid-March and Russia hosting the football World Cup in June 2018.
On 14 March 2018, after the Russian government refused to meet the UK's request that it give an account of the incident, Prime Minister May unveiled a series of measures in retaliation for the poisoning attack, which was blamed on the Russian state. Chief among those was the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, a move she presented as part of "actions to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK", as these diplomats had been identified by the UK to be "undeclared intelligence agents". The BBC reported other responses include:
- Increasing checks on private flights, customs and freight
- Freezing Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
- Ministers and the Royal Family boycotting the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia
- Suspending all planned high-level bilateral contacts between the UK and Russia
- Plans to consider new laws to increase defences against "hostile state activity"
- Investment of £48 million in a new chemical weapons defence centre
- Thousands of British troops who are held at high-readiness would be offered vaccinations against anthrax on a voluntary basis so they are ready to deploy to areas where the risk of this type of attack exists
The prime minister said some measures the government planned could "not be shared publicly for reasons of national security". The Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn parliamentary response to May's statement, in which he casted doubt to apportion blame for the attack on Russia prior to the results of an independent investigation, provoked criticism from some MPs, including members of his own party.
The UK and the US condemned Russia for the attack during the meeting. Separately, the White House fully supported the UK's attribution of culpability for the attack as well as the punitive measures taken by the UK against Russia and also accused Russia of undermining the security of countries worldwide.
The leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom released a joint statement on 15 March describing the attack as “an assault on UK sovereignty”, "the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War", and "a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law". They said the only plausible explanation is that Russia is responsible and called on Russia to provide full and complete disclosure of its Novichok nerve agent program to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.