The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Former Russian spy critically ill in Britain after suspected poisoning

Russian's foreign minister confirmed March 16 the country would expel British diplomats after Britain made a similar move for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. (Video: The Washington Post)

LONDON — It is a spy drama — and it is real. An aging Russian double agent is found slumped beside his daughter on a park bench in a quiet English town, both near death, apparently poisoned. Now Scotland Yard is on the case.

Britain’s counterterrorism police on Tuesday took over the investigation into what caused a balding former Soviet-era spy, 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, to collapse Sunday, leaving him staring into space, beside his comatose daughter, 33-year-old Yulia.

The pair remain in critical condition in a Salisbury hospital.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson cautioned Tuesday it would be “wrong to prejudge” the fast-moving investigation but warned that if Russia were found responsible, the British government would respond “robustly.” Johnson told Parliament that Russia was now a “malign and disruptive force.”

The circumstances — two people, both in critical condition just minutes after they appear healthy and ambling past a security camera — immediately rang red bells in security circles.

The ex-spy Skripal was, according to neighbors, living a quiet life in Salisbury. He was a man with a past. He had enemies.

Skripal was jailed in Russia in 2006 after he was convicted of passing the names of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service.

In 2010, he was handed over to Britain as one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents living in the United States. 

The high-profile spy swap took place on an airport tarmac in Vienna — like something out of a Cold War John le Carré novel.

The strange doings in Salisbury also immediately called to mind the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital bed three weeks after drinking tea laced with a rare radioactive substance. 

In 2016, a 300-page British government inquiry found that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “probably approved” the killing of Litvinenko, who was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and a former KGB operative.

In a statement Tuesday, Wiltshire Police said Skripal and his daughter were in intensive care, being treated for “suspected exposure to an unknown substance.”

The police added that a first responder who helped with the incident also remained in the hospital. Authorities were sweeping nearby sites — a restaurant and a pub — for forensic evidence.

“It’s a very unusual case, and the critical thing is to get to the bottom of its causes as quickly as possible,” said Mark Rowley, head of counterterrorism policing in the United Kingdom. 

“We’re doing all the things you would expect us to do,” he said. “We’re speaking to witnesses. We’re taking forensic samples at the scene. We’re doing toxicology work, and that will help us to get to an answer.”

The Russian president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Tuesday that the Kremlin knew nothing at all about the case and was ready to cooperate in the investigation if asked.

“We know that this tragic situation has happened, yet we have no information about its probable causes, what this man has been doing and what this is about,” Peskov said. 

He described any accusations against Russia as predictable and “not long in coming.”

Rowley, the counterterrorism chief, said no one was rushing to judgment — Russians living in England die all the time of natural causes — but the special circumstances raised troubling questions.

“There are deaths which attract attention,” Rowley said. “I think we have to remember that Russian exiles are not immortal, they do all die, and there can be a tendency for some conspiracy theories. But likewise we have to be alive to the fact of state threats, as illustrated by the Litvinenko case.”

Putin supporters said the Skripal affair was an attempt to stir anti-Russian sentiment ahead of a March 18 presidential election in Russia.

Two Russians whom Britain accused of being behind the 2006 Litvinenko murder were never charged — instead, they have thrived. Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun both deny involvement in Litvinenko’s killing.

“The Britons suffer from phobias,” Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard who is now a member of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency Tuesday. “If something happens to a Russian, they immediately start looking for a Russian trail.”

Kovtun, a businessman, predicted that British authorities would pursue “an anti-Russian scenario,” as he claims they did in investigating Litvinenko’s death. 

“If someone did poison Skripal, if this is not just an accident, then, of course, this is a provocation by British special services aimed primarily at discrediting Russian government bodies in the run-up to the presidential election,” Kovtun told the Interfax news agency.

Litvinenko’s widow, Marina Litvinenko, said in an interview that seeing television footage of investigators wearing hazardous materials suits brought back painful memories. 

“I had hoped it never would happen again, and when I saw those pictures of special suits, of course it was quite difficult to believe it might happen again,” she said. 

She praised the police for launching an investigation immediately — they waited 2½ weeks in her case, she said — but she suggested that if this is shown to be an assassination attempt by Russia, it would point to enduring vulnerabilities.

“Because it did happen to another Russian person, it shows lessons were not learned and people asking for protection, for political asylum or refugees, or even this guy, who was exchanged, they can’t be safe, can’t be protected,” she said.

If it turns out that Russia played any role in another assault on British soil, it would also plunge the current frosty feelings between the two nations “well below a Siberian zero,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

Eyal said the Litvinenko case strained relations, as did more recent charges that Russian state-sponsored trolls interfered in British politics.

Eyal added that authorizing an assassination would “violate the quasi gentleman’s agreement that spies who have been swapped are usually left out of these games.”

Skripal kept a low profile in Britain until Sunday afternoon, when a member of the public called the police, concerned about the welfare of two people on a bench. Eyewitnesses who saw the pair said they did not look well.

It seemed as if they had taken “something quite strong,” Freya Church told the BBC. “On the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl. She was sort of leaned in on him. It looked like she had passed out, maybe. He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky.”

Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.

With his dying words, poisoned spy Litvinenko named Putin as his killer

Russian spies hacked the Olympics to make it look like North Koreans, says U.S.

Russian spy chiefs met in Washington with CIA head to discuss counterterrorism

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news