A deliberate act, that’s how Scotland Yard is describing the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the southern English city of Salisbury on Sunday. Investigators will not say exactly what toxin was used, only that it was a nerve agent.
The retired Russian Col. Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition after they were found unconscious and slumped on a park bench. A police officer who arrived at the scene has also been hospitalized after becoming ill, British investigators say.
Authorities are investigating whether the poisoning was another effort by the Kremlin to carry out an assassination attempt in Britain. Journalist David Filipov (@davidfilipov), former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that the incident sounds “so much like a James Bond novel.” Nerve agents are chemical weapons that disrupt the nervous system and can kill a person within minutes. The most common types are sarin and VX, which was what killed North Korean President Kim Jong Un’s half brother last year. “This is pretty significant. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX need to be made in a laboratory,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer in the U.K.’s chemical, biological and nuclear regiment, told The Guardian. “It is not an insufficient task. Not even the so-called Islamic State could do it.”
The Russian government will vehemently deny it was involved, Filipov says, but the incident screams classic Russian spycraft.
“In 2006, a former Russian spy who was critical of Vladimir Putin did mysteriously end up poisoned with a radioactive substance and in absentia, Britain decided that those were Russian spies who did it,” he says. “So when a former spy suddenly ends up critically ill, mysteriously, naturally we assume this is it again.”
If the Kremlin was indeed involved, it wouldn’t be the first time the Russians were suspected of killing one of their own on the sly. In the 2006 case, former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was found dead after drinking tea spiked with radioactive polonium. A British investigation found Putin likely signed off on the operation.
Six years later, the autopsy of Russian banker-turned-whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny revealed traces of a rare poisonous chemical. And decades earlier, in 1978, Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov was killed after being stabbed by a poison-tipped umbrella on the Waterloo Bridge in London.
Though many questions remain about this most recent case, Filipov says, Russian involvement would be suspect because Skripal was part of a massive prisoner swap in July 2010 after the FBI discovered a sleeper cell of Russian spies in the U.S.
“I mean, it was a prisoner exchange. That would be a complete violation of the unwritten rules of spycraft,” Filipov says. “Once you exchange the spies you don’t go back and you know, assassinate them.”
Prior to the exchange, Skripal was serving a 13-year sentence for selling secrets to Britain’s M16 intelligence service, BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.
“The Russians wanted this group of their undercover operatives back, and the U.S. and U.K. appeared to strike a bargain in which they got a number of people out who were serving time in Russian prisons in exchange,” Corera says. “And one of them was this man Sergei Skripal who then came to the U.K. where he was living very quietly until just the last few days.”
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.