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Former Russian Spy Poisoned by Nerve Agent, British Police Say

“I’m sure that in some of these cases, there is a relatively natural explanation, but it is beyond the bounds of probability that they all are,” said James Nixey, manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a British foreign affairs think tank.

The British government has been accused of being less than eager to get to the bottom of those deaths, or to hold anyone responsible, but political and security analysts say this time is likely to be different. Given the government’s sensitivity to that criticism, and the intense worldwide attention on the Skripal case, a thorough investigation is probably unavoidable, they say, and if Russian involvement is found, an aggressive response may be inevitable, too.

The resources and expertise involved in producing and using a nerve agent suggest the involvement of a military or intelligence agency, as in two highly publicized episodes last year: Syrian government forces used sarin gas, a nerve agent, against a rebel-held village, and the North Korean government is believed to have been behind the assassination of the half brother of the country’s leader using another nerve agent, VX.

“We can’t say for sure right now, but the more sophisticated and the rarer the poison, the more likely it is to come from the Russian state or elements within it,” said Ben Judah, a biographer of Mr. Putin who has also researched the lives of Russian expatriates in Britain.

But the evidence of state sponsorship is not conclusive, security and political analysts said. In 1995, a religious cult killed 12 people in the Tokyo subway by releasing sarin, made by some of its adherents who were also scientists.

Experts also cautioned that even when evidence points to Moscow, it is hard to determine whether the attacks were ordered by Russian oligarchs or organized crime bosses whose interests are aligned with the Putin government’s, elements within Russian intelligence acting on their own, or the Kremlin itself.

“Certainly, a nerve agent is not something an ordinary person can get their hands on,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian dissident living in Britain who is allied with the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

“But whether it’s sanctioned by the state,” he said, is still unproved. “It may have been a decision from Mr. Skripal’s colleagues who he betrayed rather than from the highest circles of Russian power.”


Sergei Skripal during a court hearing in Moscow in 2006. Credit Yury Senatorov/European Pressphoto Agency

In 2006, a Russian court convicted Mr. Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence, of selling secrets to the British. In 2010, he was released from prison and sent to Britain as part of an exchange of imprisoned spies.

On Sunday afternoon, he and his daughter became severely ill in the quiet cathedral town of Salisbury, England. They lost consciousness and remain in critical condition.

Some of the emergency workers who went to the scene also became ill, and one police officer has been hospitalized in serious condition, Mr. Rowley said.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack, and on Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said that suggestions of Russian culpability were part of an orchestrated campaign to drive a wedge between Russia and Britain.

“Before it was clear what happened, the traditional speculation was being put about,” she said.

Mr. Skripal has lived quietly and openly for years in Salisbury. But in the past two years, his brother and his son have died in what family members have called mysterious circumstances.

“This one is very hard to read,” said John Lough, a Russia specialist at Chatham House. “I just don’t know how that guy would have represented a threat. If someone bore him a grudge, why did it take so long to deal with him? What would he have done of late to provoke it?”

Another Putin critic living in Britain — Alexander Y. Perepilichny, an apparently healthy 44-year-old — went for a run in 2012 and suffered a fatal heart attack. British authorities at first ruled out foul play; only later, when an insurance company ordered new tests, was a rare plant toxin found in his system.

In 2013, Boris A. Berezovsky, a wealthy Russian and prominent Putin foe, was found dead in his home near London. The authorities said the evidence was consistent with suicide by hanging; his family disagreed and noted that Mr. Berezovsky believed he had been the target of earlier murder plots.

In some cases, “there wasn’t sufficient effort made to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Misha Glenny, a British journalist who has written books on Eastern Europe and global organized crime.

Last year, Parliament published a 72-page report on relations with Russia. It mentioned Mr. Litvinenko’s death once, briefly, and the others not at all.

Analysts cite several reasons successive British governments have reacted cautiously to Russian conduct, not least among them being money. London is a favorite place for wealthy Russians to live, buy homes and invest.

“The British government does not investigate Russian money coming in, at all,” Mr. Glenny said, and has not wanted rocky relations to threaten that flow.

Experts say the government has shielded what it knows about some suspicious deaths to protect its intelligence methods and sources. They say that Britain, like its Western European allies, has also feared the consequences of intensified conflict with Moscow, including cyberwarfare.

Mr. Nixey, of Chatham House, said many government officials believed that Britain was too small to act alone against Russia, and could do things like imposing sanctions or seizing assets only in coordination with the rest of Europe or with the United States.

Source: NYT > World

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