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Diplomatic crisis in a bottle: How the Skripal poisoning unfolded

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.