LONDON — British counterterrorism police said Tuesday that they are aiding the investigation into what caused a former Russian double agent to collapse, leaving him critically ill in a Salisbury hospital.
The spy, 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, was found slumped on a bench in a shopping center on Sunday in the cathedral city of Salisbury. He was sitting next to his daughter, 33-year-old Yulia, who was reportedly visiting from Russia.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that it would be “wrong to pre-judge” the investigation, but said that if Russia was found to be responsible, the British government would respond “robustly.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Wiltshire Police said that the pair were now in intensive care at the Salisbury District Hospital, where they are being treated for “suspected exposure to an unknown substance.”
It added that a member of the emergency services who helped with the incident also remained in hospital.
“It’s a very unusual case, and the critical thing is to get the bottom of its causes as quickly as possible,” said Mark Rowley, head of counterterrorism policing in the United Kingdom. He told the BBC that the case would become a counterterrorism investigation “if necessary.”
“We’re doing all the things you would expect us to do. We’re speaking to witnesses. We’re taking forensic samples at the scene. We’re doing toxicology work, and that will help us to get to an answer,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Tuesday that the Kremlin knew nothing at all about the case and that it was ready to cooperate in the investigation if asked.
“We know that this tragic situation has happened, yet we have no information about its probable causes, what this man has been doing, and what this is about,” Peskov said. He described accusations against Russia in the matter as predictable and “not long in coming.”
The case drew comparisons to the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in a London hospital bed three weeks after drinking tea laced with a radioactive substance. In 2016, a British public inquiry found that Putin had “probably” ordered the killing of Litvinenko, who was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and a former KGB operative.
Two Russians whom Britain has accused of being behind the Litvinenko murder described the incident as a possible attempt to stir anti-Russian sentiment ahead of the March 18 presidential election in Russia. The two men, Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, both deny involvement in Litvinenko’s killing.
“The Britons suffer from phobias,” Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard who is now a member of Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency. “If something happens to a Russian, they immediately start looking for a Russian trail.”
Kovtun, a businessman, predicted that the British authorities would pursue “an anti-Russian scenario,” as he claims they did in investigating Litvinenko’s death.
“If someone did poison Skripal, if this is not just an accident, then, of course, this is a provocation by British special services aimed primarily at discrediting Russian government bodies in the run-up to the presidential election,” Kovtun told Interfax.
Litvinenko’s wife, Marina, said in an interview that seeing television footage of investigators wearing hazardous materials suits brought back painful memories.
“I had hoped it never would happen again, and when I saw those pictures of special suits, of course it was quite difficult to believe it might happen again,” she said.
She praised the police for launching an investigation immediately — they waited two and a half weeks in her case, she said — but said that if the case is shown to be an assassination attempt by Russia, it would show that lessons hadn’t been learned.
“Because it did happen to another Russian person, it shows lessons were not learned and people asking for protection, for political asylum or refugees or even this guy, who was exchanged, they can’t be safe, can’t be protected,” she said.
Skripal was jailed in 2006 after he was convicted of passing the names of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. In 2010, he was handed over to Britain as one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents living in the U.S., including Anna Chapman. The high profile spy swap took place on an airport tarmac in Vienna.
Since then, Skripal kept a low-profile in the U.K. until Sunday afternoon when a member of the public rang the police, concerned about the welfare of two people on a bench.
Eyewitnesses who saw the pair said they didn’t look well.
It seemed as if they had taken “something quite strong,” Freya Church told the BBC. “On the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl. She was sort of leaned in on him. It looked like she had passed out, maybe. He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow