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Britain eyes Russia, ‘a malign and disruptive force,’ after ex-spy struck by mysterious illness

Police outside an Italian restaurant in Salisbury, England, Tuesday March 6, 2018, near to where former Russian spy double agent Sergei Skripal and his companion were found critically ill Sunday.

Steve Parsons/AP

It sounds like the stuff of a spy novel: a Russian double agent suddenly struck down by a mysterious illness while living under a new identity in a small English city. But that storyline is playing out in the U.K. as police and doctors scramble to find out what happened to Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who worked with Britain's MI6 and exposed dozens of Russian spies.

Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, were found slumped unconscious on a park bench outside a shopping mall in Salisbury on Sunday and they remain in intensive care in a local hospital, with doctors only saying that both were exposed to "an unknown substance." The case is being investigated by counterterrorism officers and it has already prompted a diplomatic row between the U.K. and Russia, with allegations flying that Mr. Skripal was poisoned by Russian agents and threats the U.K. will boycott this summer's soccer World Cup in Russia.

"We don't know exactly what has taken place in Salisbury, but if it's as bad as it looks, it is another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia's door," Britain's Foreign Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Tuesday. "It is clear that Russia, I'm afraid, is now in many respects a malign and disruptive force, and the U.K. is in the lead across the world in trying to counteract that activity." Mr. Johnson warned that if Russia was involved, the U.K. will consider sanctions and could withdraw officials from the World Cup, although not England's team.

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Russian officials called Mr. Johnson's comments "wild" and a spokesman at the Russian embassy in London said any suggestions that Russia's special services were involved were "absolutely untrue." The situation "in the media space is rapidly evolving into a new round of an anti-Russian campaign in the U.K. Readers are offered various speculations, the essence of which is ultimately to slander Russia."

Mr. Skripal, 66, had a long career in Russia's military intelligence unit and foreign affairs office, rising to the rank of colonel. He began working with MI6 in the 1990s and turned over the names, code-names and addresses of dozens of Russian spies in return for cash. Russian police arrested him in 2004, and a judge later sentenced him to 13 years in prison for treason. He was released in 2010 as part of a spy exchange between Russia, the U.K. and the United States, and settled in Britain, where he was given a new name, a house and a pension. His wife died in 2012 and was buried in the U.K. and his son died last year in Russia. His only remaining family member is his 33-year old daughter, who had moved to London in 2010 from Moscow and worked briefly at a hotel in Southampton. At some point she returned to Moscow and had been working for a soft drink company, according to her postings on social media.

The Kremlin says 'it didn't take them long' in response to media speculation that it was involved in the critical injury of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy exposed to an unknown substance in Britain. Reuters

The two were found slumped on a bench and witnesses told reporters that Mr. Skripal appeared disoriented and had been vomiting, while Ms. Skripal was frothing at the mouth. They were rushed to hospital and remain in critical condition. Police wearing protective clothing have sealed off a nearby restaurant and a pub, which remain closed. Police also confirmed on Tuesday that "a small number" of emergency services personnel working at the scene had been assessed for exposure to the same substance and all but one had been released from hospital. Investigators have yet to determine what caused the Skripals' illness but they said there was no risk to the public.

The case drew immediate comparisons to Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy who was granted political asylum in the U.K. in 2000 and became a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Litvinenko, who worked with MI6, died in 2006 after having tea in London with former KGB agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun. The tea had been laced with radioactive polonium-210 and an inquiry concluded in 2016 that his poisoning had probably been orchestrated by Russia's FSB intelligence service and sanctioned by Mr. Putin. Russia rejected the conclusions saying the probe had been politicized and that the results of the investigation "confirm London's anti-Russian position."

Many have now jumped to similar conclusions, alleging that Russia was likely behind Mr. Skripal's sickness. "We don't know much, but based on the [reports], who the person was, his relationship with the Kremlin and the circumstances of his collapse, the first operating assumption should be that this was an assassination attempt by the Kremlin against a traitor of Russia," said Bill Browder, an investment banker who is pushing for the adoption of a "Magnitsky act" in the U.K. in memory of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison after uncovering widespread corruption. The law would target the assets of corrupt officials and versions of it have been passed in Canada and the United States. Mr. Johnson said on Tuesday that the U.K. is considering it.

Ben Emmerson, a London lawyer who represented the Litvinenko family at the inquest, called for a government probe if Mr. Skripal's death is linked to Russia. "If Sergei Skripal turns out to have been the target of a Russian assassination attempt, the Prime Minister and the home secretary must promptly announce a public inquiry to determine the extent of Kremlin involvement," Mr. Emmerson told reporters. "The Russian state policy of assassinating political opponents – so-called enemies of the state – at home and abroad has been allowed to continue unchecked for too long. The international community has to send a clear message to the Kremlin that this is intolerable and must stop."

However, Mr. Lugovoi told a Russian newspaper on Tuesday that the U.K. could be behind Mr. Skripal's sickness. "I don't rule out that this is another provocation by British intelligence agencies," he said.

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