By Shreya Maskara
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer and double agent for British intelligence services, and his daughter Yulia remain in critical condition at the UK’s Salisbury District Hospital after they were poisoned with a nerve agent on March 4. Sergei Skripal, 61, and his daughter, Yulia, 33 were found on a park bench in the southern city of Salisbury.
The case is currently being probed by the counter-terrorism police as an attempted murder, with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement in an address to the House of Commons that it is “highly likely” that Russia is responsible for the act as the police has identified the poison as being a “military grade nerve agent.. developed by Russia.”
Who is Sergei Skripal?
Born in 1951 in Kaliningrad Oblas, in the former Soviet Union, Skripal was a trained military-intelligence officer. Skripal worked for the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) in Malta and Spain, but was sent back to the headquarters in Moscow in 1996 due to health problems. It is believed that Skripal came into contact with the British government during his trips abroad.
Russian prosecutors believe that he was recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Serve- M.I.6- in 1995, and passed on state secrets, which helped the British uncover the identity of over 300 Russian secret agents.
In 2004, Skripal was arrested outside his house in Moscow and found guilty of treason, sentenced to 13 years in prison and stripped of his ranks. During the time of his trial, Yevgeny Komissarov, a spokesman for Moscow’s military court, said the MI6 had transferred over $100,000 to Skripal for the information he supplied.
How did Skripal get to the UK?
In 2010, Skripal was released as a part of a spy swap and was pardoned by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Following his release, Skripal settled in Salisbury, where he bought a house in 2011. In the years after his move, Skripal’s wife died of cancer in 2012 and his son died in 2017 on a visit on St. Petersburg. His daughter Yulia moved to Moscow in 2014, shortly after the death of her mother.
What is known about the poisoning?
The Salisbury police received calls around 4 pm on March 4 regarding two people who were acting strangely. An eyewitness of the incident, Freya Church, said in an interview to the BBC that she thought the two people had taken “something quite strong.”
Doctors at the Salisbury Hospital determined Skripal and his daughter had been poisoned with a nerve agent, which are small phosphorous-based molecules that disrupt bodily function and are highly lethal. Members of the emergency services and the public that was around the area were checked for symptoms and three police officers were hospitalised by health authorities. While two only had minor injuries, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who visited the Skripal house also remains in serious condition. Prime Minister May has revealed the nerve agent belongs to a group known as Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian and belongs to an advanced group of agents developed in secret in the 1970s and 80s by the Soviet Union.
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian Government lost control of potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent.”
The Prime Minister responds to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury. pic.twitter.com/nUhpboSSrC
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) March 12, 2018
How has the world reacted?
May declared in a House of Commons address that Russia is most likely responsible for the attack May has asked Russia for an explanation and if no satisfactory response is provided by the Kremlin, the UK will conclude it as an “unlawful use of force” by Russia.
“It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk,” May said in the address.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament, said in an interview with the New York Times, “This is a form of soft war that Russia is now waging against the West.”
Several prominent world leaders issued statements in support of the UK.
US President Donald Trump said it appeared “like it was the Russians” and that the US was “going to be sticking with the British.” Recently axed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia was most likely guilty. However, the White House did not mention Russia in its comments about the attack.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also agreed with May’s statement, saying that the use of any form of nerve agents was “completely unacceptable.” European Commission leaders also said they stood in solidarity with the UK. Germany, France, New Zealand and Australia also extended support to the British government.
In response to May’s allegations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said there is a “circus show” ongoing in Downing Street. “The conclusion is obvious: it’s another political information campaign, passed on provocation,” she said, while addressing journalists. Russian President Vladimir Putin also dismissed the allegations of his country’s involvement in the poisoning.
At Russia's National Grain Centre, I ask Vladimir Putin: "Is Russia behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal?" pic.twitter.com/5ve7U82Hwa
— Steve Rosenberg (@BBCSteveR) March 13, 2018
The UK ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, described as “undeclared intelligence officers,” May announced earlier today. The announcement came after Russia failed to respond about why Skripal was poisoned.
Addressing parliament, May also detailed other reprisal, including putting a pause on any high-level meetings with Russian officials, as well as calling off a planned visit to the UK by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
May had promised “extensive actions” against the perpetrators.
Ahead of her announcement, reports suggested May could employ a variety of options to “punish Russia”, including pulling out of the upcoming Football World Cup to be held in Russia and encourage its European allies to do so too, as well as imposing sanctions on Russia.
Other options, albeit extreme, available to the UK include declaring Russia a state sponsor of terror or attempt to cut Russian banks off from the international financial data exchange system. Whether the British government employs these or any other measure to deal with Russia, one thing is certain, Russia will respond in kind.
6/7 Any threat to take “punitive” measures against Russia will meet with a response. The British side should be aware of that. pic.twitter.com/DFAaB5orQE
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) March 13, 2018
The response of the UK’s European partners and the US will also be key to revealing how events unfold and the effect it will have on Russia and its relations with the rest of the world.
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