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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.