Russian ringleader of Salisbury attack charged over Novichok poisoning
Scotland Yard has charged the suspected ringleader of the gang of Russian agents who carried out the Novichok attack in Salisbury in 2018.
Denis Sergeev, a senior military intelligence officer who used the alias Sergey Fedotov, is accused of being part of the team who deployed a deadly nerve agent in an attempt to murder the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in March 2018.
He allegedly carried out the attack alongside his fellow GRU operatives, Anatoliy Chepiga and Alexander Mishkin, who were charged by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) under their aliases Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov in September 2018.
Sergeev is believed to be the head of the elite GRU 29155 unit – which is said to specialise in sabotage, subversion and assassination. The group has been linked to other attacks around Europe, including a suspected poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev and his son in 2015 and an explosion at an arms depot in the Czech Republic in 2014.
The Metropolitan Police said Sergeev had been charged by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) under his alias, after a lengthy and painstaking investigation was able to show evidence of the three acting together in Britain over the weekend when the Skripals were poisoned.
Scotland Yard have not ruled out that more people could have been involved in the operation and have confirmed there are a number of other ongoing lines of inquiry.
In a statement in the House of Commons, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, expressed the Government’s determination to see justice done.
She said: “Should any of these individuals ever travel outside Russia we will work with our international partners and take every possible step to detain and extradite them to face justice.”
Boris Johnson, speaking in New York, urged Russia to hand over the three suspects.
The Prime Minister said Russia has already paid a “heavy price” over the poisoning, with the expulsion of diplomats, adding: “But they should recognise that our sense of justice must be done. Dawn Sturgess, an innocent member of the British public, died in that event and we want to see those suspects handed over.”
But Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, dismissed the idea that Moscow had a hand in the poisoning.
She said: “We strongly condemn London’s attempts to place the blame for what happened in Salisbury on Moscow, and we urge for a professional, objective and unbiased investigation into the incident.”
“We’re reiterating our commitment to a thorough cooperation between law enforcement agencies and experts.”
How the events unfolded
After landing at Heathrow Airport at 11am on Friday 2 March 2018, Sergeev checked into a central London hotel.
Around four hours later the other two members of the unit flew into Gatwick and headed to the modest City Stay Hotel in Bow East London.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon, who has been spearheading the investigation into the poisonings, said police now had evidence to show that the three met up several times over the weekend.
It is thought Sergeev travelled to Oxford Circus and Embankment as well as other locations around the capital as the final stages of the plan was allegedly being put into action.
Police said searches of the hotel where Sergeev had stayed had not identified any evidence of Novichok, although traces of the nerve agent were discovered at the hotel where the other pair stayed.
As a Major General in the GRU, Sergeev is the most senior ranking of the three, and it is thought he was in charge of the operation, directing the other two as they carried out their mission.
An investigation by the Bellingcat website unearthed Sergeev’s identity in February 2019, but Mr Haydon said counter-terror police had been aware of his role from the time when they identified the other two suspects.
Analysis of his movements and communications while in the UK established that Sergeev connected to the internet hundreds of times but avoided using any Wi-fi networks, as he sought to avoid detection.
He also made numerous telephone calls back to Moscow during his three-day stay.
Police have also been able to piece together a detailed timeline of their movements by looking at CCTV across London, the transport network and in Salisbury.
On Saturday Mar 3, Chepiga and Mishkin travelled by train to Salisbury on what is believed to have been a reconnaissance mission, returning to London later that day. It is not thought Sergeev travelled to Salisbury.
The following day the pair made the identical journey for a second time, this time placing the Novichok on the door handle of Skripal’s Salisbury home.
In addition to poisoning Mr Skripal and his daughter, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who was the first officer to attend the former Russian agent’s home, was left critically ill. Fortunately all three recovered from their ordeal.
Four months later however, the nerve agent cost the life of local mother-of-three Dawn Sturgess after her partner Charlie Rowley found a discarded bottle of perfume which had been used to transport the Novichok.
Sergeev left the UK on the afternoon of Sunday Mar 4 while Chepiga and Mishkin were still in Salisbury, boarding the 1.45pm flight from Heathrow to Moscow.
After delivering the nerve agent, the other two returned to London by train and boarded Aeroflot flight SU2585 to Moscow which left Heathrow at 10.30pm.
The seven counts Sergeev is charged with
After counter-terror police passed a file of evidence to the CPS, they charged Sergeev with the same seven counts his alleged co-conspirators face.
These are conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal; the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey; the use and possession of Novichok contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act; and causing grievous bodily harm with intent to Yulia Skripal and Nick Bailey.
None of the three have been charged in connection with the death of Ms Sturgess, because while the police have linked the two incidents, they still do not have the evidence to show how Mr Rowley came by the counterfeit perfume bottle that contained the fatal Novichok.
Shortly after being identified and named by the UK authorities, Chepiga and Mishkin went on Russian state television to claim they were sports nutritionists who had simply visited Salisbury in order to look at the city’s fine cathedral spire.
Mr Haydon said: “This marks another significant development in our investigation. Ever since these terrible incidents occurred, we were clear that we would be relentless in our investigation and our pursuit of justice for the victims of the attacks and their families.
“Whilst public attention gradually moved away from what happened in Salisbury and Amesbury, the investigation team has remained absolutely focused, meticulously poring over the evidence and building our case.
“This has been one of the most complex investigations ever undertaken in counter-terrorism policing and the skill, professionalism and dedication shown by everyone involved has been remarkable.
“We continue to appeal to the public for any information that might assist with our investigation. The information we’re releasing now may well jog somebody’s memory, so I would urge you to get in touch with any information about the three men we have identified – whether you may have seen them in the UK between Mar 2-4 2018, or if you know them.”
Despite gathering enough evidence to formally charge all three with serious offences, counter-terror police remain realistic about the prospects of ever seeing justice done.
With no extradition treaty in place, and Moscow denying any knowledge of the incident, the British authorities are powerless to put the suspects before the courts.
However, Interpol red notices have been issued, meaning if any of the three were to travel to a third country, they could potentially be arrested.
Home Secretary says Sergeev will be arrested if they leave Russia
Home Secretary Priti Patel made a statement in the House of Commons on the announcement that the Crown Prosecution Service had authorised charges against a third individual in relation to the 2018 Salisbury attack.
Ms Patel said: “Should any of these individuals ever travel outside Russia we will work with our international partners and take every possible step to detain and extradite them to face justice.
“We will continue to take robust steps to counter the threat posed by the Russian state.”
Ms Patel added the “appalling” event shook the entire country and “united our allies in condemnation”.
“This House has profound differences with Russia, by annexing Crimea in 2014, igniting the flames of conflict in eastern Ukraine and threating western democracies, including by interfering in their elections, Russia has challenged the fundamental basis of international order,” she said.
“Although attacks like this are uncommon, it is not the first time Russia has committed a brazen attack in the UK.”
‘We will continue to take robust steps to counter the threat posed by the Russian state.’
Priti Patel says if any of the suspects in the Salisbury poisonings ever travel outside of Russia the UK will ‘take every possible step’ to extradite them.
She added: “The CPS has now authorised charges against a third individual known as Sergey Fedotov and CT (counter-terrorism) policing investigation identified that Fedotov entered the UK on a flight from Moscow to London Heathrow and stayed at a hotel in central London between 2 and 4 of March 2018 before returning to Moscow.
“While in the UK he met with Petrov and Boshirov on more than one occasion in central London. The CT policing investigation has identified and established that Fedotov is in fact Denis Sergeev and he’s also a member of the GRU, and that all three individuals previously worked together for the GRU as part of additional operations outside of Russia.
“All three men are now wanted by UK police. Arrest warrants are in place for all three. The police have applied for an Interpol notice against Fedotov mirroring those already in place against the other two suspects.”
Downing St: ‘Futile’ to seek to bring Sergeev to justice while still in Russia
Downing Street acknowledged it would be “futile” to seek to bring Denis Sergeev to justice while he remained in Russia.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We don’t have an extradition treaty with Russia and, as we have found with other cases such as that of Litvinenko, any formal extradition request is futile.”
The spokesman added that the Foreign Office (FCDO) will raise the case of Denis Sergeev with the Russian ambassador to the UK.
“We have said throughout this was not a rogue operation and only the Russian state had the technical means and experience and the motive to carry out this attack,” the spokesman said.
“We obviously have ensured that, if possible, if these people who have been charged leave Russia we will do everything we can to extradite them and bring them to justice in the UK.”
Salisbury still ‘traumatised’ by ‘barbaric’ use of nerve agent on UK soil
Wiltshire Police chief constable Kier Pritchard said he welcomed the development.
“I know this announcement by the Counter Terrorism Policing Network today will affect many people – the victims, their families and the communities of Salisbury and Amesbury,” he said.
“These shocking incidents had a significant impact on all involved and my thoughts, and those of Wiltshire Police, remain with Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Charlie Rowley, the family of Dawn Sturgess, who tragically died, and former Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant, Nick Bailey.
“The Counter Terrorism Policing Network investigation team continues to work tirelessly to seek to bring those responsible to justice and Wiltshire Police will continue to offer our full and ongoing support in this investigation.”
Philip Wilkinson, police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire, said: “My thoughts, and those of my office, remain with Dawn Sturgess’ family and friends, alongside the other victims who have had their lives devastated by this incident.
“While today’s announcement is important, it is vital we remember a member of our community was killed and others left changed and traumatised by the barbaric use of a nerve agent on UK soil.
“Our community has rebuilt and those other victims are coming to terms with the long-lasting implications, so my hope now is the perpetrators will have their appalling crimes levelled against them and all of the victims will see justice served in their names.
“I am democratically elected to hold our police force to account, it would be widely welcomed if some foreign security services demonstrated that same accountability.”