Putin’s poisons: 2018 attack on Sergei Skripal

This article is part of a series describing how the Russian government and Vladimir Putin conceal their or their allies’ involvement in chemical attacks on civilians worldwide. Other pieces in the series examine the 2017 sarin attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, and the 2020 poisoning of political activist Aleksey Navalny.

Police standing guard outside a pub (© Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Police officers stand outside The Mill pub on March 13, 2018. The Skripals visited the Salisbury pub shortly before they collapsed with Novichok poisoning. (© Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

In March 2018, Sergei Skripal, a British citizen who used to work as a Russian intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, nearly died after coming into contact with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent originally developed by the former Soviet Union.

Combination photo showing mug shots of two men (© Metropolitan Police/AP Images)
British prosecutors charged two Russians, who likely used the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with the nerve agent poisoning of a British citizen and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. (© Metropolitan Police/AP Images)

Russian authorities immediately used the media and diplomatic forums to deny any involvement. (Learn why nerve agents are so deadly.)

However, within weeks, the leaders of the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom concluded the Russian government was behind the attack, noting there is “no plausible alternative explanation.”

Three months later, a British couple in Amesbury, England, fell severely ill after coming into contact with a perfume bottle containing the same poison that affected the Skripals. The woman later died. She had sprayed the substance on her wrist, thinking it was perfume.

In September 2018, British authorities charged in absentia two Russian military intelligence officers with conspiracy to murder, attempted murder and use of the Novichok nerve agent.

By March 2018, more than 20 nations, including the United States, expelled 153 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers in support of the U.K. and in protest of the poisonings.

Russian President Vladimir Putin falsely claimed the two attackers arrested in the Skripal case were “civilians, not criminals.” The two agents appeared on RT (formerly Russia Today), a state-controlled station, and said they were tourists visiting Britain.

Graphic outlining Russian government's disinformation efforts on Skripal poisonings, map locating poisonings in U.K. (Image: © Arafat Uddin/thenounproject.com)
(State Dept./M. Gregory)

Russian officials and state-run media spread several false claims after the incident including:

  • Someone else did it: The United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom and exiled Russian oligarchs planned the attack.
  • It was not Novichok: It was a “NATO toxin,” or Skripal was smuggling chemical weapons.
  • The attack never happened: NATO used reports of the poisonings as a ruse to justify a budget increase, and the U.K. used them to distract from Brexit.

Three weeks after the attack, two-thirds of social media posts about it came from Kremlin-supported sources, according to 2018 analysis from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

RT and Sputnik, two state-controlled television networks, produced hundreds of misleading stories about the incident in an attempt to influence Western media.

The Kremlin’s chemical weapons disinformation campaign continues today in Ukraine, with attempts to blame others while obfuscating its actions.