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How Salisbury case went from local drama to international incident | UK news

It is probably Salisbury’s ugliest corner, tucked away from the cathedral close and busy market square. Last Sunday afternoon, a few people were milling around the modern red-brick shopping centre. It has a Greggs, a Superdrug and a cheap greetings card shop. Plus a bench.

It was here that passersby noticed something odd: a grey-haired man, in his sixties, slumped and distinctly out of it. Next to him was a younger woman, in her thirties. Both were comatose. They looked too prosperous to fit the stereotype of junkies. Still, it seemed they may have taken drugs.

Police who arrived at the scene at 4.15pm assumed as much. The pair were unresponsive, catatonic even. Realising this was a medical emergency, they summoned backup. An air ambulance landed in the central car park. At 5.10pm, it took off, ferrying the woman to Salisbury district hospital. The man went by ambulance.

For a little longer, the case seemed routine. Regular officers sealed off the spot close to the river Avon, swollen by melting snow. They began collecting evidence. The first press arrived, Rebecca Hudson, a reporter, and Tom Gregory, a photographer, from the Salisbury Journal. It was 5.43pm.

Specialist officers in protective suits reposition a police forensic tent that had blown over in Salisbury

Specialist officers in protective suits reposition a police forensic tent that had blown over in Salisbury. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Soon after that, it became evident that this was no minor news item. The officers and paramedics who had gone to the bench were reporting troubling symptoms: itching eyes, breathing difficulties. Meanwhile, the victims were in a critical condition in intensive care. Something terrible had happened to them. But what?

The patients, police discovered, were Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, visiting from Moscow. Skripal’s backstory was remarkable: he was a former officer from Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, who in 1995 began secretly working for MI6. He was arrested in 2004, convicted of treason and sent to a penal colony.

In 2010, Skripal got out, less than halfway through his 13-year sentence. The FBI had captured a group of Russian sleeper agents in the US. In a scene full of cold war atmospherics, Skripal was swapped on the tarmac of Vienna airport. The sleepers went home to Moscow. Skripal’s destination was more low-key: Salisbury and south-west England.

Skripal and his wife, Liudmila, settled in an inconspicuous semi-detached house, bought in 2011 without a mortgage. He made little effort to hide. True, the KGB and the FSB – the successor agency at one point headed by Vladimir Putin – took an unforgiving view of traitors. But Skripal had admitted his crime. He had received an official pardon. He was, logic suggested, safe.

Georgi Markov

In one of the most chilling episodes of the cold war, the Bulgarian dissident was poisoned by a specially adapted umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. As he waited for a bus, Markov felt a sharp prick in his leg. The opposition activist, who was an irritant to the communist government of Bulgaria, died three days later. A deadly pellet containing ricin was found in his skin. His unknown assassin is thought to have been from the secret services in Bulgaria.

Alexander Litvinenko

The fatal poisoning of the former FSB officer sparked an international incident. Litvinenko fell ill after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium. He met his killers in a bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family. Putin denied all involvement and refused to extradite either of the killers.

German Gorbuntsov

The exiled Russian banker survived an attempt on his life as he got out of a cab in east London. He was shot four times with a silenced pistol. He had been involved in a bitter dispute with two former business partners.

Alexander Perepilichnyy

The businessman collapsed while running near his home in Surrey. Traces of a chemical that can be found in the poisonous plant gelsemium were later found in his stomach. Before his death, Perepilichnyy was helping a specialist investment firm uncover a $230m Russian money-laundering operation, a pre-inquest hearing was told. Hermitage Capital Management claimed that Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately killed for helping it uncover the scam involving Russian officials. He may have eaten a popular Russian dish containing the herb sorrel on the day of his death, which could have been poisoned.

Boris Berezovsky

The exiled billionaire was found hanged in an apparent suicide after he had spent more than decade waging a high-profile media battle against his one-time protege Putin. A coroner recorded an open verdict after hearing conflicting expert evidence about the way he died. A pathologist who conducted a postmortem examination on the businessman’s body said he could not rule out murder.

Scot Young

An associate of Berezovsky whom he helped to launder money, was found impaled on railings after he fell from a fourth-floor flat in central London. A coroner ruled that there was insufficient evidence that his death was suicide. But Young, who was sent to prison in January 2013 for repeatedly refusing to reveal his finances during a public divorce row, told his partner he was going to jump out of the window moments before he was found.

By Monday, the horror hit. Scientists at the nearby government laboratory in Porton Down confirmed what hospital staff must have suspected: that the Skripals were attacked with a rare nerve agent. The type has not been revealed. Typically, such substances paralyse the nervous system, inhibit breathing and bring about a rapid, choking death.

As counter-terrorism police took charge, Scotland Yard began with the thesis that someone had deliberately tried to kill the Skripals. Detectives started to examine CCTV cameras installed in the centre of Salisbury two years previously. They had finally been switched on in December. The first criminals caught on camera were not exactly super-villains: two young people nicking a bike from racks in the Cheesemarket.

The Skripals had arrived in the city centre at 1.30pm on Sunday. They ate salmon risotto at Zizzi and dropped into the Mill pub. To get to the bench area, they would have had to walk through a tunnel past a camera. CCTV showed a man and a blonde-haired woman holding a large scarlet bag. They did not look much like the Russians.

The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley confirmed officers were dealing with attempted murder. There were few answers. How was the poison deployed? Had an assassin or assassins shadowed the Skripals? Could the nerve agent have been remotely triggered? And did Skripal’s business activities in England, and his bank accounts, hold clues?

For Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Amber Rudd, there must have been a feeling of deja vu. It was not difficult to guess which country would have the motive, the means and the sheer arrogance to carry out an assassination on British soil. The idea that a death squad might roam the streets of Salisbury seemed fantastical. Except for the fact that Putin had sent one before.

Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko had been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. Photograph: Natasja Weitsz/Channel 4

Britain believes that in 2006, two FSB-hired assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with a radioactive cup of tea. Litvinenko, an FSB officer turned Putin critic, died in agony 23 days later. The then home secretary Theresa May refused Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, a public inquiry. It eventually went ahead, concluding in 2016 that Putin had “probably approved” the killing.

Former intelligence professionals were in no doubt that Russia had struck again. Asked if the Skripal case was Litvinenko II, one said: “Yes indeed.” Another pointed to the “fuck you-ness” of the attack, done with no regard to who else might be poisoned or killed. The adjectives floating around government were “reckless, irresponsible, brazen”. Plus, off the record, a noun from the cold war past: “Enemy.”

Officially, Downing Street urged caution, stressing that it was too early to say who might be responsible. The choice of nerve agent as a weapon was telling. First, you could not obtain it via the internet, it was the prerogative of states. Second, whoever used it knew it would be discovered afterwards. The nerve agent was, therefore, a brutal calling card.

Officials in Moscow rubbished the idea of a Russian plot. Their denials were identical to the ones deployed after Litvinenko’s murder, and done with a bit of a wink. The Russian embassy in London tweeted that Skripal was an MI6 spy, not a Russian one. A state TV host said he did not “wish death on anyone”, but “being a traitor is one of the most dangerous professions in the world”.

Foreign affairs observers said Britain was weaker than in 2006. May has no EU allies because of Brexit, while the US president seems strangely beholden to Putin. If the Kremlin’s involvement in the Skripal case is confirmed, the government has few retaliatory options. As, one former Foreign Office adviser admitted, Moscow perfectly understands.

Who is the Salisbury spy Sergei Skripal? – video explainer

The government has indicated that Prince William will not attend the World Cup in Russia this summer. Boris Johnson’s threat in the House of Commons of an England team boycott was swiftly downplayed. The lack of Prince William will not inspire terror at the FSB, with one insider likening Johnson’s strategy to “hitting Putin with damp kitchen roll”.

The poisoning has sent shockwaves through the small community of Russian defectors living in the UK. One grimly said Skripal’s poisoning meant it was less likely Moscow would go after him in the near future and he could rest easy for the next few months.

The defector said he thought Skripal would never have been targeted if the British government had reacted more forcefully when Litvinenko was killed. He said he did not know Skripal personally, explaining that MI6 did not encourage its former spy assets or “guests” to mingle in their adopted country.


Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.

Between 1.30pm and around 4pm

Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.


A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.


The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.


Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.

Approx 4.15pm

A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.


The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.


Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.


Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home – in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.

Approx 8.20pm

Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.

By 9pm

Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that  a major incident was declared.

Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

But the defector described Skripal as “true GRU”. His career followed the typical trajectory of a military intelligence recruit. It included spells in Russia’s special forces and airborne division, as well as stints at the GRU’s HQ in Moscow. The GRU is the biggest of Russia’s three main spy agencies, and the most powerful and secretive.

For residents of Salisbury, the past week has been like something from a bizarre, incongruously plotted espionage drama. A day or so after the Skripals were poisoned, market traders turned up as normal near the bench. They set up stalls selling DVDs, flowers, cheese and sausages. Seemingly, life was back to normal.

Then detectives rapidly expanded their investigation. Forensic officers piled into Skripal’s house, sealing off the road, which had previously been accessible to the media. Tents blocked neighbours from seeing anything. Similar coverings sprung up over the graves of Skripal’s wife Liudmila and his son Alexander, who are interred in adjacent plots in Salisbury cemetery. She died of cancer in 2012.

The grave of Sergei Skripal’s son Alexander cordoned off by police tape in Salisbury

The grave of Sergei Skripal’s son Alexander cordoned off by police tape in Salisbury. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Alexander died last year in St Petersburg, aged 43. It is not clear how. Whatever the cause, there is no doubt that in recent years, Sergei Skripal has experienced multiple misfortunes.

By Thursday, the casual mood had gone. Firefighters in green protective suits and wellingtons went back to the bench because their incident tent had blown over. At another new crime scene, a vehicle recovery pound, officers wore biohazard suits. A commanding officer yelled instructions as to how they should take them off. On Friday, the military atmosphere was heightened by the arrival of 180 Royal Marines and Royal Air Force personnel to help remove evidence from the city.

Like the story of Litvinenko, the Skripal case is likely to become a major and lengthy criminal inquiry. It has diplomatic dimensions and intelligence implications. Should MI6 have done more to protect Skripal? Can it guarantee the safety of other defectors? And after Litvinenko, should the agencies have seen this coming?

According to neighbours, Skripal used to meet a smart man slightly younger than him at Côte Brasserie in Salisbury, in the same area as the Mill pub and Zizzi. Skripal’s dining companion spoke Russian. There is speculation that the mystery person was Skripal’s former MI6 handler, settled locally after a long career specialising in Russia and eastern Europe.

MI6 will be busy assessing the events of last Sunday. But the message from Moscow seems clear: we can strike whenever and wherever we want – and there is little you can do about it.

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