LONDON—Russia’s would-be assassins came bearing a tiny, pink cardboard box.
Nestled inside was a slender three-inch bottle marked Nina Ricci, Premier Jour. Instead of the trademark Parisian perfume, this glass container was filled with one of the world’s rarest and most deadly nerve agents.
Until it was used against an exiled Russian double-agent and his daughter in southwest England earlier this year, the Novichok nerve-agent program was little more than a Soviet legend. Four independent laboratories have since confirmed the substance used on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was a Novichok agent.
Britain announced Wednesday that the poison came direct from Moscow, smuggled through customs in the specially modified perfume bottle. It was not a genuine Nina Ricci bottle, box, or nozzle, but together Russian operatives believed they would form the perfect delivery vehicle for the first deployment of the Novichok nerve agent on Western soil.
Two suspected agents from Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate—known as the GRU—arrived with the planned murder weapon at Gatwick Airport on the outskirts of London on Friday, March 2. They had traveled on Aeroflot Flight 2588 using Russian-issued passports in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, although those are believed to be aliases. The GRU employed Skripal before he was recruited by MI6 and betrayed the agency by spying for the West.
Scotland Yard released a host of images showing the men as they used trains and the London Tube during their three-day mission in England. Neil Basu, Britain’s head of counterterror policing, asked for help from tipsters all over the world to help reveal the men’s true identities.
Prime Minister Theresa May said the names of these individual hitmen were unknown but British intelligence service officials have concluded that they were working for the GRU agency.
“The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command. So this was not a rogue operation,” she said, coming close to pointing the finger at the Kremlin. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.”
Petrov and Boshirov have been charged in absentia for the plot, although Britain has not formally requested the men be extradited from Russia, knowing that no such assistance would be provided. A European arrest warrant and Interpol Red Notice have been issued. In Britain, the charges include conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal, the use of Novichok contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act, and the attempted murder of the Skripals and Nick Bailey, a police officer who was poisoned as he investigated the case.
Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, professed shock at the charges. “The names and photographs published in the media mean nothing to us,” she said.
Just like the killers who flew from Moscow to London to murder Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, these highly trained agents left a trail. A decade ago, detectives were able to track the radioactive traces of Polonium-210 from the teapot in a Mayfair hotel right back to the plane they flew back to Russia after Litvinenko’s death. This time, the agents left traces of Novichok in their modest hotel room in London’s East End. They also bungled the disposal of the murder weapon so badly that the bottle was later found in Salisbury by a couple who tragically believed it to be perfume. Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old mother of three, applied a fatal dose of the clear liquid to her wrists.
Detectives have not yet identified where the faux perfume bottle had been between the suspected GRU attack on the Skripals and its ill-fated discovery by two civilians four months later. They are now convinced that the content of the bottle is the same substance that struck down the original targets of the attack.
On Sunday, March 4, the Russians going by Petrov and Boshirov were captured on CCTV cameras near the home of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury. He had retired to the sleepy English city after being freed from a Russian jail cell during the high-profile spy-swap that saw Anna Chapman returned to Moscow from New York.
Petrov or Boshirov is believed to have sprayed Novichok onto the door handle of Skripal’s house. They may not have known that his daughter, Yulia, was visiting from Russia at the time. She, too, was poisoned by the deadly substance, although both of the Skripals eventually regained their consciousness and survived the attack.
This was the Russians’ second trip to Salisbury that weekend. They caught the train from London’s Waterloo station to the cathedral city on the Saturday and spent a couple of hours on a short reconnaissance operation before returning on the 4.10pm train to London.
The following day, they set off intending to kill their former GRU colleague. They left the City Stay Hotel at around 8 a.m., walking to Bow Tube station and then on to Salisbury via Waterloo once again.
After completing the operation in Salisbury, they were back in London by late afternoon and left on a flight to Moscow at 10:30 p.m. that night.
The Skripals had already been found slumped on a bench in central Salisbury when Petrov and Boshirov’s train got into Waterloo, but the hitmen were safely back in Moscow by the time Scotland Yard’s counterterror police discovered that there had been a chemical-weapons attack on British streets.