Poisoned door handle hints at high-level plot to kill spy, British officials say

Police officers stand guard outside of the home of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain.
Police officers stand guard outside of the home of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (NYTIMES) - British officials investigating the poisoning of Sergei 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 Skripal's brick home on a quiet street in Salisbury on March 4, the day he and his daughter, Yulia, were sickened.

Sergei Skripal, who was freed in a spy swop 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 US officials are sceptical 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.

Four weeks after the assassination attempt, British and US officials are turning to the question of whether President Vladimir 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 KGB officer, is skilled at hiding his communications.

Russia has denied involvement in the poisoning.

British and US officials say they are struck by the symbolism of the attack on Sergei 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.