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The Day of the Skripal

Editorial note: It should be self-evident in the below piece that neither the author, Tim Norman, nor UK Column is assessing the sources quoted as trustworthy.

The Day of the Skripal

Adjectives in the below article such as "acclaimed" serve merely to denote the high regard in which the mainstream media and officialdom hold such sources.


This article, a summary of which is here, presents a detailed timeline that records what is reported to have happened in the English city of Salisbury on Sunday, 4 March 2018, when two Russians — Sergei and Yulia Skripal — were apparently almost killed by Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent that was developed in the USSR from the 1970s to the 1990s.

The timeline is based entirely on mainstream media reports and official sources. Where there are spaces between words in the hyperlinks, there is more than one link to mainstream or official sources to be found.

The principal sources are UK Government documentsUK Counter Terrorism Policing and the BBC. Other sources include ITV News, Reuters, Sky News, Chemistry WorldThe Clinical Services Journal, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, The GuardianThe Independent, The New York Times, The Mirror, The Salisbury Journal, The SunThe Times and The Washington Post.

Although they both survived, the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal was an event with huge consequences in international relations.

British and European politicians were almost unanimous in their view that Skripal’s assassination was directed by the Kremlin.

Other incidents were subsequently linked to the attack, such as the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August 2020 and an explosion at an arms depot in the Czech Republic in 2014 that in April 2021 Czech authorities linked to the same two Russian assassins who were ordered to kill Skripal.

The UK announced that it suspected Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter eight days after the incident.

On 12 March 2018, then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons that the attack on the Skripals was “highly likely” to have been ordered by the Russian state.

“It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” May told MPs.

“This is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok,” she said. “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory [DSTL/Dstl] at Porton Down… the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”

“There are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the fourth of March,” May continued.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

On 4 March 2022 — a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine — then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson used the four-year anniversary of the Skripal poisoning to repeat the accusation he made at the time as Foreign Secretary that Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed the attack.

“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision — and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision — to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War,” Johnson said.

“That is why we’re at odds with Russia.”

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer — a former human rights lawyer who was knighted for his services to the Crown Prosecution Service of England and Wales — supported Johnson’s judgement that Putin had ordered the assassination.

An important source for this timeline is the widely acclaimed Bellingcat organisation, an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists that specialises in fact-checking and open-source intelligence.

The work of Bellingcat, founded by blogger Eliot Higgins in 2014, is central to what we know about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev won the European Press Prize for his work unmasking the two Russian agents who attempted to kill him.

The timeline also refers to reports by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and evidence given to the UK Court of Protection by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) — the military facility seven miles from Salisbury known as Porton Down.

At the time of the attack on Sergei Skripal, Porton Down was in the middle of a three-week exercise called Toxic Dagger —“the UK’s biggest annual exercise to prepare troops for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) operations […] involving government and industry scientists and more than 300 military personnel”.

The timeline refers to CCTV images and video footage that is in the public domain. The timestamps on these images should be read as approximate, potentially incorrect — or even false. Whatever the case may be, this evidence is presented in chronological order.

The timeline does not refer to independent bloggers or Russian outlets such as RT unless they are cited by mainstream sources.

Some inconsistencies in the detail of the timeline are noted—it is for the reader to decide how significant these inconsistencies may be.

Sergei Skripal was a colonel in the Soviet military intelligence agency known as the GRU. He was recruited by MI6 and sold secrets to the UK in the 1990s.

Skripal was arrested for this in 2004, and in 2006 Russian courts sentenced him to 13 years in prison. But in 2010 he was released to the UK in a large spy swap between Russia and the West that included Anna Chapman, “Russia’s most glamorous spy”, after a Russian spy network in the US that the United States Department of Justice called the Illegals Program was exposed.

In 2011 Skripal bought a house in Christie Miller Road, Salisbury and settled into life in the Wiltshire cathedral city under his own name, with no obvious effort made by UK secret services to conceal his identity or protect him from potential reprisal attacks, despite information that the GRU was watching him.

According to the BBC, Skripal “kept the company of British intelligence agents” in Salisbury, and his family said he was always very vigilant because he believed the Russian special services could come after him at any time.

It appears he was right to be concerned. Seven years after settling in Salisbury, Skripal was apparently attacked at his home by two GRU assassins who flew to London Gatwick from Moscow on Aeroflot flight SU2588 in order to kill him with Novichok, a nerve agent so lethal it was described at the UN as a weapon of mass destructionlike the UK-developed nerve agent VX, but even more deadly.

The New York Times reported that Novichok was a nerve agent which Western intelligence had been aware of “for decades” as a Soviet chemical weapons programme. However, there was no evidence that it had been used to target people outside of the former USSR before the Salisbury incident.

In the documentary film Navalny (2022) Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev—who unmasked the assassins sent to kill Skripal—describes the “insidiousness” of Novichok.

“Within hours, any trace of it will disappear,” Grozev says. “So it will always forever look like it was a natural death.”

Despite Grozev’s assertion, Porton Down was able to identify the nerve agent in blood samples taken from the Skripals hours after they were poisoned, and the OPCW was able to confirm Porton Down’s analysis using a second set of blood samples taken from the Skripals two weeks later.

Three days after the attack—five days before Theresa May told MPs that UK military scientists had identified NovichokThe Daily Mail speculated that VX was used in Salisbury because this British chemical weapon had been used in Malaysia to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the year before.

Jong-nam died within 20 minutes after VX was smeared on his face by two women who believed they were “playing a prank for a reality TV show”.

“One of the world’s deadliest poisons has emerged from the shadows after the audacious attempt earlier this month to murder a former Russian spy on U.K. soil”, Science magazine wrote two weeks after the Novichok attack, on 19 March 2018. “Scientists are racing to unravel why the mysterious nerve agent, concocted by Soviet chemists in the 1970s, is so potent.”

Like sarinsoman and VX, Novichok is an organophosphate nerve agent. These incredibly toxic substances are “similar to pesticides (insect killers) […] in terms of […] the kinds of harmful effects they cause”, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. “However, nerve agents are much more potent than organophosphate pesticides.”

The BBC reported that “some variants” of the Soviet chemical weapon “are thought to be five to eight more times more toxic than the VX nerve agent”—which is itself 100 times more potent than sarin.

Skripal was 66 years old when he was attacked. His 33-year-old daughter Yulia had come to visit him from her home in Moscow the day before. They both came into contact with Novichok after the GRU assassins smeared the front door handle of Skripal’s house with poison gel.

It was more than three weeks before the front door of Skripal’s house was reported to have been the source of the nerve agent that contaminated Salisbury.

“It is clear that Sergei Skripal’s house was not regarded as crucial to the investigation, or a potential health risk, until several days after the incident,” the BBC reported on 29 March.

The GRU assassins allegedly used a fake perfume bottle to poison the door after 12.00 noon on 4 March 2018. It seems they then discarded the bottle. It was undiscovered for four months until it appeared at a flat eight miles away from Salisbury after a woman was apparently poisoned by its contents.

“During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons,” UK National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill wrote to NATO in a letter on 13 April 2018.

“This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles,” Sedwill—Theresa May’s top civil servant—told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“We therefore continue to judge […] it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible [for the attack on the Skripals]. There is no plausible alternative explanation.”

After Sergei and Yulia were exposed to Novichok by touching the front door handle of Christie Miller Road, it took a few hours for the toxin to have a significant effect on either of them.

But eventually—at around 16.15 that afternoon—they were both overcome by the poison, and were found together “in an extremely serious condition” on a bench in Salisbury city centre.

Working with Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert who was a colonel in the British Army and Commander of NATO’s Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion, the BBC recreated the moment the Skripals were overcome by Novichok in The Salisbury Poisonings (2020), a docudrama about the event and its aftermath.

But how did Sergei and his daughter end up in such a terrible state—and what happened to them after they were found?

The Day of the Skripal starts at 09.15 on 4 March 2018.

On 7 June 2020—a week before the first episode of The Salisbury Poisonings programme was broadcast by the BBC on 14 June 2020The Sunday Times reported that Sergei and Yulia had “begun a new life in New Zealand, according to senior government sources”.

“A senior government source with knowledge of the risk assessment carried out on the couple at the time of the move, said the Skripals had been given new identities and support to start a new life,” The Sunday Times said. The report continued:

The pair are unlikely to surface publicly again. However, Skripal remains in touch with his old neighbours Ross Cassidy and his wife Mo. In December the couple opened a Christmas card and were astonished to see it was from the Skripals. There was no return address.

Skripal never fully relaxed into his life in the UK, according to Cassidy, who described him as gregarious but also watchful and suspicious.

The New Zealand Heraldthe nation’s largest-selling daily and newspaper of record—also reported Cassidy’s remarks about his friend and neighbour.

“[Skripal] often sat in an armchair with a clear view of the street. Sergei saw you coming before you ever saw him,” Cassidy said.

The newspaper rejected the suggestion that Skripal was living in New Zealand, saying there was “no truth to the Skripal’s [sic] relocation story”.

Massey University intelligence and counter terrorism expert John Battersby said the […] report the Skripals are in New Zealand [was] germinated […] in the quaint old romantic notion of desperate fugitives escaping to the far ends of the earth to live out their days in obscurity,” the article stated.

“The British newspapers in the ‘quality press’ have longstanding relationships with the […] British intelligence agencies […] [who] are very specific at […] steering ‘trusted journalists’ away from stories that are clearly wrong.”

“I think what I can say is don’t believe every piece of speculation that you read,” the newspaper reported New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as saying in response to questions about the Skripals’ location.

“You shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you read,” Ardern repeated twice according to a report by

An overlooked part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement on 12 March 2018 to the House of Commons about the Skripal incident was highlighted by the veteran investigative journalist Nick Davies a few months after her speech.

Davies, who in 1999 was the inaugural winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, is the author of several books, including Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (2008).

Although by then retired, on 17 June 2018 Davies gave a tenth-anniversary talk about the book at an event organised with the Netherlands’ Association of Investigative Journalists. It was entitled (in Dutch), ‘Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News—10 years on’.

In the talk, Davies says that mass recycling of information in the mainstream media has made it easy to “mislead the world” around stories such as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or Novichok in Salisbury, and that “false or misleading” information in the media is more prevalent now than it has ever been before. He goes on to say:

If you look at the information that’s now flowing through our channels of communication around the world and ask, ‘what proportion of that information is […] false or misleading?’, I would say the percentage which is false or misleading is higher now than at any time in human history.

News organisations now take in a mass of second-hand material—not stuff that they themselves have researched—and they churn it. They recycle it unchecked into the news.

So if you want to mislead the world on a subject it isn’t difficult any more […] If you look at the weapons of mass destruction […] there were tens of thousands of stories.

How many of those stories were checked? How many of the reporters went out and tried to establish whether those WMD are there? It would be less than one per cent.

I mean, this is staggering. But that’s normal.

Davies continues:

You will have had here [in the Netherlands] the story about Mr Skripal and his daughter, who were found almost dead in this provincial city, Salisbury.

The level of reporting about that is right down at the level of WMD. I have not seen any evidence of any British journalist checking anything. There are huge gaps in this story.

First of all, the best source on this is the Prime Minister, Theresa May. You go back to what happened when she first spoke about this in our Parliament [eight] days after the attack.

She stands up and she says, ‘This was Novichok’—a word I had never heard before—and she says there are only two possible explanations.

“Hang on, Theresa. What did you say?,” Davies asks rhetorically. “Two possible explanations?

He then sets out:

One [explanation] is that the Russian state organised a murder conspiracy in UK territory. Well, OK. If that’s true, let us expel 23 diplomats from the Russian Embassy and launch a war of words.

But Theresa says there’s a second explanation possible. She says it may be that the Russians have lost control of their stockpile of nerve gas.

Now, big question. What is Mr Skripal doing for a living? Is it possible that he’s doing business deals in Russia?

If he is, has he possibly come up against somebody who is really, really angry with him about a business deal, and who has connections to an organised crime group that might perhaps have got hold of the Novichok that has escaped from the stockpile?

There’s an alternative explanation there. And this is only a theory. But what journalists do is they take theories and they investigate—that word—to find out if they’re true.

This [theory] begins with the Prime Minister. This doesn’t begin with a lunatic in a dark corner in an old alley. The Prime Minister says that [alternative] explanation is possible.

The Day of the Skripal ends at midnight on 4 March 2018, as Sunday turns to Monday.

We leave Sergei and Yulia under sedation, receiving treatment for what the medical staff at Salisbury District Hospital were “led to believe” was a drugs overdose.

Colonel Skripal was never heard from again.

Cover image: Salisbury cathedral spire under thunderclouds” by seier+seier is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Read the full article at the original website


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