Salisbury novichok attack: How a lethal substance sparked an international incident in a quiet English city

Andy Gregory looks back on the shocking and tragic events that thrust the Wiltshire city into global headlines

Tuesday 21 September 2021 11:18
The Salisbury Poisonings trailer

In 2014, Wiltshire’s second-largest town was to draw an incredulous reaction from corners of Britain’s national press.

“The world’s best cities – Milan, Vienna and ... Salisbury?!” gasped The Telegraph, as the Mail suggested “eyebrows will have been raised” by the unassuming city’s inclusion in Lonely Planet’s list of the top 10 cities in the world.

“For too long travellers have considered Salisbury a short stop on the way to Stonehenge,” the authors warned, citing the “quintessentially English” city’s “top-class restaurants, atmospheric nightlife, and ... neck-straining medieval masterpiece” of a cathedral – home to the “best preserved” copy of the Magna Carta – as reasons to visit.

Fast-forward four years and another high-profile case for the city’s tourism credentials was being made on the global stage, albeit in far more tragic and sinister circumstances.

In an instantly infamous appearance on Russian state TV, two men going by the names of Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, claiming to work in sports nutrition, declared they had visited the “wonderful” city twice in one weekend to see Stonehenge and the “famous Salisbury cathedral ... known for its 123-metre spire”.

Put off by mild snow, which they said had left a “muddy slush everywhere”, the men returned to their dingy London hotel and returned again the next day, they claimed. RT presenter Margarita Simonyan suggested they might be lovers, citing their “tight pants” and the fact they “didn’t come on to me”.

This time, the headlines were global, and the incredulity off the charts. “The spies who came in because it was cold,” jeered The London Economic, while the UK’s foreign affairs committee chair Tom Tugendhat responded: “The idea that Russians were turned away by snow is laughable.”

But despite the mocking response, the stakes could not have been higher. At the heart of a mire of geopolitical tensions, the pair stood accused of tearing lives asunder in the sleepy English county, following the first use of a nerve agent in a European city since the Second World War.

The chemical – deployed in an apparent assassination attempt – would eventually cause the death of a British citizen, and the traumatic hospitalisations of several others.

While the motivations for the attack remain a mystery, the discovery by members of the public of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, poisoned and unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury on 4 March 2018, would send shockwaves through the international community and further complicate relations with Russia to this day.

As the pair were taken into hospital, along with Wiltshire Police’s DS Nick Bailey who was severely poisoned after having gone to their aid, a search for the male victim’s name by police revealed his identity as a former Russian spy.

By that evening, MI6 was reportedly a hive of tensions, and rapid response officers at the UK’s nearby biological and chemical military research facility Porton Down were sent to take samples from the scene.

Their analysis identified A234, a military-grade Novichok nerve agent first created by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The government scientist responsible described it as a “jaw-dropping moment”, saying: “I went through a number of emotions from disbelief to anger. It’s one of the most dangerous substances known. It’s quite unique in its ability to poison individuals at very low concentrations.”

A former member of the GRU, Skripal had previously acted as a double agent, selling Russian secrets to the west. But nothing about his current activities suggested a motive for why he and his daughter were singled out for such a brutal attempt on their lives.

The then-66-year-old had been freed in a spy-swap eight years prior to the attack, and felt safe enough in the UK to live under his own identity – as do many other western agents who had been swapped at the same time. He is not thought to have remained active in the intelligence field, nor is there any evidence to suggest that Yulia – who was visiting from Moscow – ever followed in his footsteps.

Displaying no public proof of its own, Theresa May’s government – numbering Boris Johnson as foreign secretary – immediately pointed a finger at Russia, demanding the Kremlin demonstrate its innocence within 36 hours. Amid warnings of echoes with the promises of WMD in the run-up to the Iraq War, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called on the UK to also provide evidence, and was derided in the Commons and tabloids as a traitor.

Russia refused May’s ultimatum, responding that British threats to punish Moscow would not go unanswered, describing the allegations of Russian involvement as a provocation.

The UK, the US and 22 other western governments retaliated by expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats – in a move that would likely have caused real damage to Russia’s intelligence capabilities. However, with a shift away from diplomatic espionage towards more technologically capable means, the damage was most likely short-lived.

In the months that followed, British police and intelligence services combed through hours of CCTV footage, eventually identifying two suspects, who had flown from Moscow to London and twice visited Salisbury in a single weekend.

The police began building a case against the men, known as Boshirov and Petrov on their passports and visas, which saw a major development with the discovery of the weapon used to distribute the nerve agent – a fake Nina Ricci perfume bottle.

However, the discovery was made in tragic circumstances. On 27 June, nearly four months after the initial attack, the discarded bottle was accidentally picked up by Charlie Rowley, who three days later gave it as a present to his partner, Dawn Sturgess.

Both fell ill in Amesbury the following day. The mother-of-three, who applied the substance onto her wrists, died days later. Rowley was eventually discharged from hospital, before being readmitted with sight problems and meningitis.

Sturgess’ family is still looking for answers. They are campaigning for the inquest into her death to take into account whether the UK government could have better protected her, and to establish whether any currently unknown others also came into contact with the poison.

The news of her death came hours after the home secretary announced that the government had “no current plans” for additional sanctions on Russia after the spate of diplomatic expulsions. But days later, the government accused Russia of using British streets, parks and towns as “dumping grounds for poison”, with the lead investigator on the Salisbury attack Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon alleging the perfume bottle had possibly contained enough novichok to kill thousands of people.

Indeed, in what was a harrowing time for local residents and particularly emergency responders in the region, a number of paramedics later reported feeling unwell in the wake of the two incidents.

A month later, British police charged the two Russians with murder, with Theresa May continuing to assert it was not a “rogue operation” as the Met laid out partial evidence. This included CCTV footage showing the pair arriving in Salisbury and heading to and from the direction of Skripal’s home.

It was at this point that the pair made their widely-maligned appearance on RT, which one former British intelligence official would later remark to this paper indicated slipping standards in Russian intelligence.

Aided no doubt by their globally viewed TV appearance, their true identities – which had reportedly been known to British intelligence – were revealed publicly shortly afterwards.

First, the investigative website Bellingcat unmasked Boshirov as Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a recipient of Russia’s highest state award. Shortly afterwards, Petrov was revealed to be Alexander Mishkin, also of the GRU, the Russian intelligence service.

The Kremlin strongly denies any culpability to this day and has accused the UK of spreading “Russophobia”. A Levada Centre poll in 2018 of 1,600 Russians indicated that only three per cent believed Russian forces were behind the attack, with 56 per cent saying “it could have been anyone”.

However, an onslaught of further Russian intelligence operations would later be revealed – among them an attempted cyberhack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, which was about to release the results of its probe into the Skripal case.

Furthermore, the BBC reports that, since 2014, Russia seems to have stepped up a long-standing campaign to track defectors.

While the UK’s immediately hardline response to the attack was likely influenced by the accusations of weakness it faced following its tentative response to the assassination of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, critics have argued leaders did not go far enough to counter what many viewed as an insouciant display of Russian dominance – and many wonder whether Vladimir Putin would be discouraged from doing so in the future.

“What has happened? 23 diplomats were expelled from this country and nothing else. Nothing else,” prominent Kremlin critic Bill Browder told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2019. “The United States sanctioned people, and sanctioned Russia for using chemical weapons in Salisbury, and the chemical weapons attack didn’t occur in the United States, it occurred in Great Britain.

Speaking amid negotiations for the return of 23 Russian diplomats to British soil, he added: “So, in the end, with exception of this expulsion of diplomats, there have been no consequences for Russia committing an atrocity in Salisbury.”

In addition, amid tough talk in the UK to crack down on Russian money and influence in London, sparse noticeable action has been taken. Publication of the long-awaited parliamentary report on allegations of Russian interference in British politics has also been delayed, and is currently gathering dust in Whitehall, reportedly at Boris Johnson’s command.

Meanwhile Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has said her officers will “never give up” trying to bring the culprits to justice.

However, with the Kremlin denying any involvement, the prospect of either suspect being extradited to stand trial remains slim.