A Poison Puzzle in Southern England

Neither spying nor poisoning enemies are new to the world. In ancient times no less than today, governments and individuals alike have secretly sought information about other countries and people to use to their political or personal advantage. And it was not unusual for toxic substances to be used by individuals or political actors to further their goals.

In today’s world, everyone knows, espionage is widely employed by governmental and business concerns, and assassinations, too, are not uncommon occurrences. Usually bullets or bombs are employed to neutralize an enemy, but — at least when it comes to Russian-born victims living in Great Britain — poison, if in a technologically advanced form, seems to be a weapon of choice.

And poison — in the form of some sort of nerve agent, chemicals that disrupt the ability of nerves to function, usually causing rapid death — has been determined to be what felled ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and sickened 19 others who came to aid them, on March 4 in the southern England town of Salisbury, where the two had collapsed and were found unconscious on a public bench.

The former Russian military security colonel and his daughter, along with a British detective who attended to them at the scene of their collapse, were in serious medical danger but are now recuperating at a local hospital.

Almost a decade ago, Mr Skripal, 66, was convicted by the Russian government of passing secrets to MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, and sentenced to 13 years in prison, but he was released in 2010 and given refuge in the U.K. as part of a “spy swap.”

The apparent attack has drawn parallels to the death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned, fatally, with radioactive polonium, 11 years ago in London.

In that case, Mr. Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had fled Russia for Britain six years before he was poisoned. He died after drinking tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel.

In a report published in 2016, a British judge found that Litvinenko was killed in an assassination carried out by Russian security services. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has denied his country’s involvement in the attempted murder of the ex-spy.

In Russian eyes, Mr. Skripal is a traitor who revealed to British authorities the identities of Russian espionage agents, and so many are making the assumption, not unreasonably, that the apparent attempted assassination was the work of the Kremlin.

A commentator on Russia’s First Channel said last week, “The traitor’s profession is one of the most dangerous in the world… much more dangerous than a drug courier. Those who chose it rarely live in peace and tranquility to a venerable old age.” He went on to explain that “alcoholism and drug addiction, stress, severe nervous breakdown and depression are the inevitable occupational illnesses of the traitor,” careful not to include assassination on the list.

Calling attention to “echoes” of Mr. Litvinenko’s case in Mr. Skripel’s, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned that Britain would “respond robustly” if the Salisbury attack was found to be the work of a foreign power.

But there are other theories as well, prominent among them that an individual Russian spy or ex-spy, or an unauthorized group of them, rather than a government actor, may be behind what seems to have been a revenge attack. Mr. Skripal certainly seemed to have left his espionage life behind and posed no known current threat to Russian interests.

Dorothy Horsfield, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University College of Arts and Social Sciences, is a proponent of that latter theory, noting that the attack came so many years after Mr. Skripal’s disloyalty to his country of birth; she contrasts the case with that of Mr. Litvinenko, who was actively aiding MI6 and investigating links between criminal elements and Russian intelligence agents at the time of his poisoning.

For now, approximately 180 British military personnel from the army, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force, including experts in chemical warfare and decontamination, have been deployed to Salisbury to help in the investigation.

Hopefully, those investigators, aided by the stricken father and daughter, will be able to conclusively solve the poison puzzle.