Poisoned Door Handle Hints at Risky, High-Level Plot to Kill Former Russian Spy

Police officers searched the home of Sergei Skripal, a former spy, in Salisbury, Britain. He and his daughter were poisoned last month.
© Jack Taylor/Getty Images

British officials investigating the poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal, a former Russian double agent, believe it is likely that an assassin smeared a nerve agent on the door handle at his home. This operation is seen as so risky and sensitive that it is unlikely to have been undertaken without approval from the Kremlin, according to officials who have been briefed on the early findings of the inquiry.

This theory suggests that an assassin, who Britain believes was working on behalf of the Russian government, walked up to the door of Mr. Skripal’s brick home on a quiet street in Salisbury on March 4, the day that he and his daughter, Yulia, were sickened.

Mr. Skripal, who was freed in a spy swap with the United States in 2010, is still in critical condition and unresponsive, but Yulia is conscious and talking, according to a BBC report.

Because the nerve agent is so potent, the officials said, the task could have been carried out only by trained professionals familiar with chemical weapons. British and American officials are skeptical that independent actors could have carried out such a risky operation or obtained the agent without approval at the highest levels of the Russian government — almost exactly the same phrase that American intelligence agencies used in October 2016, when they first attributed the hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee to a team of Russian hackers.

Four weeks after the assassination attempt, British and American officials are turning to the question of whether President Vladimir V. Putin himself was aware of, or ordered, the attack.

They say there is no evidence so far of his direct participation, but the Russian president, a former K.G.B. officer, is skilled at hiding his communications.

Russia has denied involvement in the poisoning, and in the election hack.

British and American officials say they are struck by the symbolism of the attack on Mr. Skripal, as well as its effectiveness. There were many ways the former spy could have been killed: He could have been shot, or killed in a staged accident.

But the assassins knew the nerve agent would be identified, and knew it would be linked to Russia, the officials said. That was meant to send a chilling message to others who would think of defecting to, or informing, the West.

And by conducting the operation in an historical British town, some distance from London, the attack was meant to indicate that no place was out of reach of Russian assassins, the officials said.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Ellen Barry and David E. Sanger

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