On March 4, 2018, the quiet and picturesque British town of Salisbury was rocked by the discovery of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia Skripal foaming at their mouths on a bench outside an Italian restaurant. The culprit: Novichok, a nerve agent known to have been developed and used by the Kremlin. As BBC reported, the name “Novichok” means “newcomer”:
They were known as fourth-generation chemical weapons and were developed under a Soviet programme codenamed Foliant.
Novichok’s existence was revealed by chemist Dr Vil Mirzayanov in the 1990s, via Russian media. He later defected to the US, where he published the chemical formula in his book, State Secrets.
Just weeks later and less than eight miles (13 kilometers) away on June 30, 2018 in Amesbury, two people, Dawn Sturgess and her partner Charlie Rowley, were exposed to the same nerve agent. Sturgess died, but Rowley survived the attack.
Rowley’s older brother Matthew was more pessimistic about his brother’s condition. He said: “I spoke to doctors and nurses and they say it doesn’t look good. He has been diagnosed with meningitis. He has also lost use of all his limbs. Charlie’s speech has changed completely – the tone of his voice is almost incoherent. He sounds like a child, like a 10-year-old boy.”
When Rowley was discharged from hospital, health chiefs made it clear he had been decontaminated but he posed no risk to the community. He is said to be on a ward with six other people, which suggests strongly that doctors do not believe he is still suffering from the effects of novichok.
Rowley told investigators that the nerve agent was in a perfume bottle that he found and gave to Sturgess, but he could not remember exactly where. Investigators quickly linked the two poisonings, although they have said that Sturgess and Rowley were simply innocent bystanders.
Not long after the Skripals’ poisoning, Britain publicly accused Russia of carrying it out, with Foreign Minister Boris Johnson telling reporters that its denials were “increasingly absurd,” and that the Kremlin was attempting to “conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation” in a pattern that is by now likely very familiar to anyone who has followed the twists and turned of so-called “fake news” and disinformation.
The two suspects named in the case, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, have denied that they were involved, saying they were nothing more than a pair of fitness instructors visiting Salisbury as tourists at an inopportune time:
On Thursday morning—a little more than a week after they were named as suspects and a day after Vladimir Putin identified them as “civilians”—two men answering to the names of Petrov and Boshirov were interviewed on RT, the state-sponsored Russian news channel. Sitting in a beige room at a large table, they wanted to make clear that there had been a big misunderstanding. “This whole situation is just a fantastic, fatal coincidence,” Petrov said, in Russian, swivelling slightly in his chair. The truth was that they were ordinary guys. Petrov and Boshirov were their real names. They were fitness instructors—they didn’t want to say more—who advised their clients on which vitamins and “micro-elements” to take. A friend had been telling them for a long time that they should really try to check out Salisbury Cathedral. “It’s a touristic city,” Boshirov explained. “There’s a famous cathedral there, the Salisbury Cathedral. It’s famous not just in all of Europe—it’s famous all over the world, I think. It’s famous for its hundred-and-twenty-three-metre spire. It’s famous for its clock, the first clock made in the world that still runs.”
On September 26, 2018, investigative website Bellingcat announced that it had been able to confirm the true identity of one of the men previously identified as tourists, saying Ruslan Boshirov’s true identity is about as far from a fitness instructor and tourist as one can get:
The suspect using the cover identity of “Ruslan Boshirov” is in fact Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga, a highly decorated GRU officer bestowed with Russia’s highest state award, Hero of the Russian Federation. Following Bellingcat’s own identification, multiple sources familiar with the person and/or the investigation have confirmed the suspect’s identity.
This finding eliminates any remaining doubt that the two suspects in the Novichok poisonings were in fact Russian officers operating on a clandestine government mission.
The story was anticipated, but it still sent shockwaves through global media and even louder denials — not to mention ominous warnings — from Russian authorities, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
On Wednesday, two investigative online news organizations reported that one of the men who allegedly smeared poison onto the door handle of defected Russian spy Sergei Skripal was Col. Anatoliy Chepiga, a high-ranking member of the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova Thursday dismissed the report in a Facebook post, saying “there is no proof” and that the release was aimed to coincide with an address at the United Nations Security Council by British Prime Minister Theresa May. A spokeswoman for the U.K. Home Office declined to comment on the report, citing an ongoing probe into the matter.
However, despite the denials, disinformation, and lack of clarity over what this new information may change about the investigation, the available evidence is showing a trail from the two separate poisonings that appears to lead directly to the Kremlin.