The Salisbury incident

Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in Salisbury in March 2018, and subsequently the UK authorities announced that the nerve agent Novichok had been used, leading them to conclude that Russia was responsible for the attack.

On 5 September, Theresa May made a statement to the House of Commons outlining the progress of the investigation into the attack and announcing that charges would be laid against two Russian suspects. She said that the forensic investigation:

…has now produced sufficient evidence for the independent Director of Public Prosecutions to bring charges against two Russian nationals for:

the conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal;

the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey;

the use and possession of Novichok;

and causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey.

This morning, the police have set out how the two Russian nationals travelled under the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – names the police believe to be aliases.

They arrived at Gatwick Airport at 3pm on Friday 2nd March, having flown from Moscow on flight SU2588.

They travelled by train to London Victoria, then on to Waterloo before going to the City Stay Hotel in Bow Road East London.

They stayed there on both Friday and Saturday evenings – and traces of Novichok were found in their hotel room.

On Saturday 3rd March they visited Salisbury, arriving at approximately 2.25pm and leaving less than two hours later, at 4.10pm. The police are confident this was for reconnaissance of the Salisbury area.

On Sunday 4th March they made the same journey, travelling by underground from Bow to Waterloo station at approximately 8.05am, before continuing by train to Salisbury.

The police have today released CCTV footage of the two men which clearly places them in the immediate vicinity of the Skripals’ house at 11.58am, which the police say was moments before the attack.

They left Salisbury and returned to Waterloo arriving at approximately 4.45pm and boarded the underground at approximately 6.30pm to Heathrow – from where they returned to Moscow on flight SU2585, departing at 10.30pm.

The Prime Minister went on to say that there is no other line of investigation.

At least one commentator has said that some elements of this timeline remain puzzling, although others have dismissed what they describe as conspiracy theories.

On 6 September, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and the US issued a joint statement welcoming the progress in the investigation and supporting the UK assessment that the two suspects were GRU officers. The statement said that the countries would continue to work against malign activities:

We have already taken action together to disrupt the activities of the GRU through the largest ever collective expulsion of undeclared intelligence officers. Yesterday’s announcement further strengthens our intent to continue to disrupt together the hostile activities of foreign intelligence networks on our territories, uphold the prohibition of chemical weapons, protect our citizens and defend ourselves from all forms of malign state activity directed against us and our societies.

These events put allegations of Russian interference in the UK and elsewhere on the front page all over the world.

Russia denied any knowledge about the poisoning:

These steps follow the same pattern over and over. Russia receives unsubstantiated accusations while the accuser also declares its emphatic refusal to have any contact in order to establish the truth. Instead, we hear ridiculous demands that we clarify a situation that has nothing to do with us, as we have repeatedly stressed. 

UK and international response

The UK has gradually toughened its response to Russia.


In March 2018 the Prime Minister announced that the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats, saying it would degrade Russian intelligence capability. Many allies followed suit, with a total of 143 Russians being expelled. The UK also suspended all planned high-level contacts with Russia


The EU and the US already had a broad range of trade sanctions against Russia and restrictive measures against Russian and Ukrainian individuals over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, See the Commons Briefing Paper Sanctions against Russia – in brief, April 2018.

In August 2018 the US imposed further sanctions, specifically in reaction to the Salisbury incident. The UK welcomed the new sanctions and the Government has urged the EU to impose a fresh round of sanctions over the poisoning of the Skripals. The UK is likely to face resistance in the European Council to new EU sanctions. Some countries, notably Italy and Austria, are keen to improve diplomatic and economic ties with Russia.

At present, the UK is still using the European Communities Act 1972 to make sanctions law, rather than the powers in the new Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, so agreement at the European Council is still needed.

Magnitsky legislation

Named after the Russian lawyer who died in prison after uncovering a huge fraud by Russian officials, new measures have been adopted to sanction officials of foreign states deemed guilty of corruption and gross human rights abuses. Two major pieces of legislation to have ‘Magnitsky’ elements added to them: the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill (now the Sanctions and anti-Money Laundering Act 2018).

The Criminal Finances Act 2017 amended the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to expand the definition of ‘unlawful conduct’ to include gross human rights abuse or violation. After Opposition and Government amendments, the Sanctions and anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 includes gross human rights violation as a reason for imposing sanctions on a person or an entity. For more information see the Commons Briefing Paper Magnitsky legislation, July 2018.

Implausible deniability?

States have been taking covert action against each other for centuries. The Soviet Union had particular expertise in ‘active measures’: political manipulation both at home and abroad using disinformation, propaganda, censorship, front organisations and a host of other techniques, including assassinations. A former officer of the KGB said that active measures were at the heart of Soviet intelligence:

…not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the west, to drive wedges in the western community alliances of all sorts, particularly Nato, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.

Of course, Western intelligence agencies used subversion too. The UK sponsored a coup against a democratically-elected government in Iran in 1953, with US help. Scores of elections have been influenced by Western intervention. But for the Soviet Union, political subversion was relatively more important; apart from nuclear parity, the Soviets knew that militarily, economically and in soft power, the West was stronger.

So, what has changed?

The internet and social media have diversified Western publics’ sources of information, and this has led their ‘Establishments’ to lose some grip the political narrative.

Those same technological developments have provided a host of opportunities for hostile interventions.

The pace of technological and economic change, globalisation, increasing inequality, job insecurity, increasing migration, the financial crisis and consequent austerity measures have probably all helped shake some people’s trust in traditional parties and leaders.  

Active measures used to rely on ‘plausible deniability’. Another change is that, particularly as far as the Russian Federation is concerned, deniability is no longer plausible, as Rory Cormac and Richard J. Aldrich argue in an article in the latest issue of International Affairs. While denying such interventions as the poisoning of the Skripals, the Russian leadership may want everyone to assume that it was indeed the Russian state that carried out the attack. That would serve as a demonstration to potential future ‘traitors’ that they would not get away with it; to everyone else it would be a straightforward show of strength. 

Meanwhile, fears about incidents such as those in Salisbury and Amesbury serve Moscow’s purpose: that Russia should be taken seriously, despite its relative lack of military, economic and soft power.

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