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Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov in London. Photo: Scotland Yard via Getty Images

An international incident that resulted in one of the largest diplomatic expulsions in history began with a perfume bottle.

The latest: The leaders of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Canada declared in a joint statement today that Russian military intelligence officers used a banned chemical weapon in an assassination attempt on British soil. "This operation," they added, "was almost certainly approved at a senior government level." Now, after a painstaking six-month investigation, we know how it happened.

According to British authorities….

  • Two operatives using the pseudonyms Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov traveled from a budget hotel in East London on the morning of Sunday, March 4, to the scenic town of Salisbury, approached the doorway of Sergei Skripal — a Russian former double agent — and sprayed the contents of the perfume bottle on the door handle.
  • Four hours later, Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a park bench. They’d been exposed to Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.
  • By that time the Russian agents — who arrived in London the previous Friday and made a reconnaissance trip to Salisbury the day before the attack — were back to London. Later that evening, they’d board a flight back to Moscow.
  • The pair disappeared, but not quite without a trace.Novichok was detected in their hotel room. They also left behind the perfume bottle, which made its way into the possession of Dawn Sturgess via a charity bin. She died in July of exposure to Novichok.

All along their journey — in train stations, outside shops, and steps from the Skripals’ home — the agents were captured on CCTV.

Ellen Barry writes in the NYT...

  • “Britain is one of the most heavily surveilled nations on earth, with an estimated one surveillance camera per 11 citizens. It has cutting-edge technology for visually identifying criminals, and software so sensitive it can scan an airport for a tattoo or a pinkie ring. And then there is that team of genetically gifted humans known as ‘super-recognizers.’”
  • “It’s almost impossible in this country to hide, almost impossible,” said John Bayliss, who retired from the Government Communications Headquarters, Britain’s electronic intelligence agency, in 2010. “And with the new software they have, you can tell the person by the way they walk, or a ring they wear, or a watch they wear. It becomes even harder.”

What’s next: The Trump administration formally accused Russia of illegally using chemical weapons last month, triggering automatic sanctions and starting the clock on a 3-month period to decide from a menu of further punishments, some of which — like cutting off nearly all trade — are quite severe.

  • However, the administration is reportedly hoping to avoid the type of tit-for-tat escalation with the Kremlin that we saw in March, when both countries expelled 60 diplomats.

Go deeper

UN poll: Most see climate change as global emergency amid pandemic

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (C) fronts a Fridays For Future protest at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm in September. Photo: Jonathan Nacksrtrand/AFP via Getty Images

64% of people from around the world say climate change is a global emergency, a United Nations poll published Wednesday finds.

Why it matters: It's biggest global survey on climate change ever conducted, with some 1.2 million participants from 50 countries — including the U.S. where 65% of those surveyed view climate change as an emergency.

Collins helps contractor before pro-Susan PAC gets donation

Sen. Susan Collins during her reelection campaign. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

A PAC backing Sen. Susan Collins in her high-stakes reelection campaign received $150,000 from an entity linked to the wife of a defense contractor whose firm Collins helped land a federal contract, new public records show.

Why it matters: The executive, Martin Kao of Honolulu, leaned heavily on his political connections to boost his business, federal prosecutors say in an ongoing criminal case against him. The donation linked to Kao was veiled until last week.

How cutting GOP corporate cash could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Companies pulling back on political donations, particularly to members of Congress who voted against certifying President Biden's election win, could inadvertently push Republicans to embrace their party's rightward fringe.

Why it matters: Scores of corporate PACs have paused, scaled back or entirely abandoned their political giving programs. While designed to distance those companies from events that coincided with this month's deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, research suggests the moves could actually empower the far-right.