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Witness to History

Why did Russia try to assassinate Sergei Skripal – and why use novichok?

Novichok attack, 2018: Kim Sengupta recalls the attempt on the lives of the former Russian military officer and his daughter, and says there are still questions to be answered

Friday 03 January 2020 00:21 GMT
Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived the attack
Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived the attack (Rex)

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was an extraordinary, shocking, and at many levels, inexplicable, act the impact of which continues to have grave implications in international relations. It was the first time a nerve agent had been used in a European city since the Second World War. Salisbury, a tranquil and quintessentially English cathedral city, seemed a particularly incongruous and surprising setting for a murder mission linked to the dark world of espionage.

I was abroad at a conference on nuclear proliferation when the news broke that a father and daughter had been found poisoned and unconscious on a park bench, and that the Russian state was the suspect behind the attack. ​Novichok and not nuclear weapons had become the lethal WMD threat to Britain for the moment, a matter of huge concern. But nothing about the current lives of the Skripals pointed to why they should be targetted for elimination in such a brutal way.

Sergei Skripal had been a member of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, and had in the past sold secrets to the British and the west. But he had been freed as part of a spy-swap eight years previously, was not known to be actively involved any longer in the intelligence field, and felt secure enough to continue living under his own identity. There was no evidence of Yulia ever being involved in her father’s line of business and nothing in her background suggested she had incurred such vicious enmity. To add to the confusion, other western agents – people the Russians would also consider to be traitors and who were swapped along with Skripal – had continued to live openly without being harmed and continue to do so now.

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