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Ex-spy attacked with nerve agent puts UK and Russia on a collision course

Key Points
  • The U.K. and Russia could be headed for a political confrontation following the attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter.
  • A nerve agent was used in the attack that took place in a small city in the U.K.
  • Specialist police are investigating.
Police officers man a cordon near a forensic tent (not pictured) where a man and woman had been found unconscious two days previosly, on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The U.K. and Russia could be headed for a political confrontation following the attempted murder — using a suspected nerve agent — of a former Russian spy and his daughter in a provincial English city.

U.K. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the attempted murder was a "brazen and reckless attack" and an "outrageous crime." Speaking to fellow politicians on Thursday, Rudd said the government would "act without hesitation as the facts become clearer."

U.K. police confirmed on Wednesday evening that Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent who worked for the U.K.'s secret service, and his daughter Yulia, had been poisoned with a nerve agent.

The pair were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury, a small city in the rural county of Wiltshire in England, on Sunday afternoon.

"Police are now in a position to confirm that their symptoms are a result of exposure to a nerve agent," the Metropolitan Police said in a statement Wednesday evening.

"Scientific tests by government experts have identified the specific nerve agent used which will help identify the source, but at this stage in a fast-paced ongoing investigation we will not comment further."

A detail of a screen as a journalist shows CCTV footage on a mobile phone believed to show Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s.

Police detectives quickly suspected the man and woman, in their 60s and 30s respectively, had been poisoned.


Skripal's identity and background quickly led to speculation that Russia was involved in the attack, although it has denied any involvement.

Speaking in parliament Tuesday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he was not yet pointing fingers at the Kremlin but called Russia a "malign and disruptive force."

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed Johnson's comments.

"This story was straight away used to boost an anti-Russian campaign in the media," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters Tuesday.

"It is difficult to see (in the story) anything other than provocations aimed at harming the relations between our two countries."

She called Johnson's statements "wild" and said: "How can a man charged with foreign affairs, who has no relation to security organs, make such statements?"

She added that the media response followed a "script": "At first the media background will be blown up, absolutely baseless, ungrounded accusations will sound, then again all this will be classified. And again neither journalists, nor the public, nor politicians, nor officials will know what was really there," she said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.

Critically ill

Skripal and his daughter remain critically ill in an intensive care unit in hospital. The police also confirmed that a British police officer who was part of an initial response to the pair, is in a serious condition and receiving intensive care.

Nerve agents can be inhaled or absorbed through the eyes and skin, and tend to take effect in just minutes.

Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court.
TASS\TASS via Getty Images

The police did not identify the nerve agent used, although they said they had identified it. Notorious nerve agents include sarin gas, suspected to have been used in chemical attacks in Syria, and VX nerve agent — which was used in the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother in Malaysia in 2017. The deadly VX nerve agent was developed in the U.K. in the 1950s at a government science research center in Porton Down, near Salisbury.

British counterterrorism police took over the investigation on Tuesday due to the unusual circumstances and the specialist expertise needed in the investigation.

Double agent

Skripal was a former Russian spy and was convicted of working as a double agent for the British secret service, MI6, and was sentenced to 13 years in prison in Russia. In 2010, however, he was released as part of a "spy swap" with the U.S. and settled in Salisbury, British media have reported.

Police have not officially confirmed the identities of the pair who were attacked but Skripal and his daughter have been widely identified by the press and verified by neighbors of Skripal. The police believe the pair were specifically targeted.

Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018.
Toby Melville | Reuters

The attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter in the unlikely location of Salisbury is not the first time former Russian intelligence officials have been targeted in the U.K. the most infamous case is that of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko who was assassinated in 2006 with radioactive polonium-210, believed to have been administered to Litvinenko in a cup of tea in a London hotel.

Other critics of the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin have also died in mysterious circumstances. Russian business oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who fled Russia in 2000, was found dead at his home in 2013 and an open verdict recorded as the cause of death. Another Russian businessman, Alexander Perepilichny, also died in Britain in 2012 in mysterious circumstances.

On Wednesday, the police appealed for witnesses and anyone with information to come forward. CCTV showed Skripal and his daughter walking through the town shortly before the attack.