A former double agent who served in the Russian army before turning over valuable information to British intelligence was poisoned by an nerve agent.
Investigators looking into the apparent assassination attempt involving Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who collapsed outside a mall in Salisbury, know what the substance is that poisoned the spy but aren’t saying what it is at the moment.
A police officer who arrived on the scene minutes after Skripal collapsed is also seriously ill and getting worse, say authorities.
Authorities are treating the incident as attempted murder.
Although further details are awaited, the suspicion in Downing Street will be that the Kremlin has attempted another brazen assassination operation on British soil. Moscow will furiously deny involvement, but Theresa May will have to consider how the government might respond should the police and other evidence point to Russia and its multiple spy outfits.
Unlike in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with a slow-acting cup of tea, detectives got to the scene in Salisbury quickly. Hundreds of officers were now working around the clock, Rowley said. They were examining CCTV footage from the city centre and building a detailed timeline of events, he added.
An unidentified man and a woman spotted strolling in the alleyway close to the bench where Skripal was poisoned are likely to be of intense police interest. The woman has blond hair and was holding a large scarlet bag. CCTV captured them around the time Skripal collapsed.
The man appears much thinner than Skripal, who was recorded on CCTV on 27 February, buying milk and lottery scratchcards from a local shop, Bargain Stop.
Skripal was tried and convicted in a Russian court and sentenced to a long jail sentence. But he was exchanged in 2010 for several Russian spies and lived in Salisbury as an ordinary citizen.
In addition to who, there are several other questions that need to be answered:
The investigation comprises multiple strands. Among them is whether there is any more of the nerve agent in the UK, and where it came from. Intelligence sources said on Wednesday they were so far maintaining an open mind about motives and where responsibility for the attack rested.
The medical and chemical evidence and the effects on the victims point to a sophisticated nerve toxin. The best known are VX and sarin.
Chemical weapons experts said it was almost impossible to make nerve agents without training and dismissed the theory that an amateur could have assembled the substance using materials obtained from the internet.
There are some very clever amateurs out there and I would not be so quick to dismiss the possibility. Still, the evidence so far points to a foreign government’s involvement.
This is not like Putin ordering the murder of journalists or human rights activists. In fact, many intel people believe that ex-spies like Skripal are fair game for assassination, after having betrayed their country. Their murder would act as an effective deterrent to other potential traitors who now might think twice before allowing themselves to be recruited by western intelligence.