When Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia both suddenly collapsed onto a shopping center bench on Monday, it immediately looked suspicious. The two had been out together in the southern English city of Salisbury, and there was no apparent reason both would have taken ill at the same time. But there were reasons to think something else was going on. After all, Skripal had served for several years in Russian military intelligence, the GRU—and then, according to Russian prosecutors, in the 1990s he became a double agent for British intelligence. The incident looked at least superficially similar to the fate of another former Russian spy: Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 of a sudden illness and was later found to have been poisoned by a radioactive substance.
New revelations reinforced that suspicion on Wednesday, when British authorities confirmed the two had been poisoned with a nerve agent, and that Scotland Yard believed they had been targeted specifically. They did not specify what specific substance was used, but that news brought up another eerie parallel: the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s half-brother by the nerve agent VX in Malaysia last year.
The presence of a nerve agent suggests, but doesn’t guarantee, a state actor behind the attempt; just as the targeting of a former Russian spy suggests, but doesn’t guarantee, that Russia is a possible culprit. Skripal, 66, and Yulia, 33, have been hospitalized in critical condition. A police officer who responded to the scene has been hospitalized. British officials are urging circumspection about possible culprits until the investigation is completed, and Russian authorities quickly denied any involvement.