Sep 6, 2018

Diplomatic crisis in a bottle: How the Skripal poisoning unfolded

Dave Lawler, author of World

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

RNC expands convention search across the Sun Belt

Donald Trump, Mike Pence and their families on the last night of the Republican National Convention in Ohio in 2016. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images.

The Republican National Committee is planning site visits over the next 10 days to more than a half-dozen cities — across the South and into Texas and Arizona — as it scrambles for a new convention host, people familiar with the internal discussions tell Axios.

Driving the news: The RNC's executive committee voted Wednesday night to allow most of the convention to move — with only a smaller, official portion remaining in Charlotte — after North Carolina's governor said the coronavirus pandemic would mean a scaled-back event with social distancing and face coverings.

Oil faces tough road back from coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Oil companies in the battered shale patch are starting to bring back some production as prices climb, but a new report underscores how the pandemic is taking a heavy financial toll despite signs of revival.

Driving the news: Fourteen North American producers have filed for bankruptcy thus far during the second quarter, per a tally from the law firm Haynes and Boone, which closely tracks the sector's finances.

2 hours ago - World

Hong Kong legislature bans insults to Chinese national anthem

Activists holding a candlelit remembrance outside Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2020, to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong’s legislature approved a bill Thursday that makes insulting the "March of the Volunteers," the Chinese national anthem, illegal, AP reports.

Why it matters: It did so on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, when Chinese troops opened fire on pro-democracy activists in 1989. The death toll has never been released, but estimates vary between hundreds and thousands.