At Site of U.K. Poisoning, Doubts About Case Creep In

Salisbury, known affectionately by its residents as “Smallsbury,” is a well-heeled, conservative English town, sprinkled with 500-year-old pubs and bisected by the Avon River.

SALISBURY, ENGLAND — After Sergei V. Skripal, her Russian neighbor, was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent, Lisa Carey pricked her ears for any information about this bizarre series of events.

Three and a half months later, Ms. Carey, 45, a resident of Salisbury, England, where the attack on the former Russian spy occurred, has come to a firm conclusion: Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, whom Britain holds responsible for the poisoning, would never have ordered an assassination on the eve of a national election or the World Cup.

Mr. Putin is “not a silly man,” she says. If he wants someone dead, she added, they end up dead. “Someone stitched him up,” she wrote recently. “Whoever did this made it look like Putin did it.”

Though Ms. Carey’s opinion is not a common one in Salisbury, she’s not alone, either.

“We are force-fed the answer that it was the Russians, no two ways about it,” read a letter to the editor in a recent edition of The Salisbury Journal. Many more express a shrugging sense of resignation, that the facts of the case may never be clear.

During the days after Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious, the British government seemed to be winning the public relations war, mobilizing its allies in a united front against Russia.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government presented its case for Russia’s guilt, and by the end of March 25, countries had lined up in support, expelling more than 100 Russian diplomats. In a YouGov poll released on April 3, three-quarters of Britons were relatively confident that Russia was responsible.

Credit...Yury Senatorov/European Pressphoto Agency

In the weeks that followed, though, Britain’s control over the narrative slipped away.

As the British authorities went silent on the progress of their investigation, English-language Russian outlets flooded social media with more than a dozen alternative theories: The United States had poisoned Mr. Skripal to deflect attention from Russia’s geopolitical successes; Britain did it to deflect attention from Brexit; the nerve agent had been accidentally released from a chemical weapons laboratory nearby; a drone did it; Yulia Skripal’s future mother-in-law did it.

This blitz of skepticism came to dominate social media conversations. In early April, the Atlantic Council found that four of the six most-shared English-language articles on the case came from Kremlin media outlets. The theories are seeding doubt, even in Salisbury.

“It’s really peculiar the Russian government is going out and saying all this stuff, and, generally speaking, there is no response from the British government,” said Matthew Dean, the leader of Salisbury’s City Council and the owner of the Duke of York, a local pub.

Though the vast majority of people in Salisbury say they are satisfied with Britain’s explanation, Mr. Dean said, there are also “huge numbers of people who say, ‘My goodness, there are a lot of unanswered questions.’ ”

Salisbury, known affectionately by some residents as “Smallsbury,” is a conservative English town, sprinkled with 500-year-old pubs and bisected by the Avon River. Its 45,000 residents — older and whiter than the national average — include a large number of former military officers.

They are, as a community, accustomed to living in proximity to secrets. Seven miles away is Porton Down, a laboratory that carries out classified experiments with chemical and biological weapons. Its employees abide by strict confidentiality agreements, but like Area 51, the mysterious Air Force base in Nevada, Porton Down breeds folklore: A government web page written to debunk them contains the sentence “No aliens, either alive or dead, have ever been taken to Porton Down.”

After the jarring news that a nerve agent had been brought to Salisbury, its community leaders hewed to that most English of strategies: Keep calm and carry on. Ceri Hurford-Jones, the managing director of Spire FM, a local radio station, said he had been keen to wind down daily coverage of the Skripal investigation, in part because the reporting was hurting Salisbury’s tourist business.

“Here on the ground there is no motivation for us to go out and ask questions because we want to get on with our lives,” he said, adding that most everyone he knew accepted the government’s explanation.

“We are quite a parochial town,” he said. “There is an innately trusting side of us. I think that is a good thing about us, that we trust our government. We don’t look for conspiracies around the corner; it’s just not our way.”

But along Salisbury’s shopping streets, residents and businesspeople compare notes on the questions that remain unanswered.

Many express bafflement about the condition and whereabouts of Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey, who was exposed to the nerve agent while trying to help the Skripals. Mr. Bailey has remained out of sight since he was released from a two-and-a-half-week hospitalization in late March.

Others fret about the ducks that used to gather on the Avon River near where the Skripals collapsed, saying they must have been quietly culled. (Mr. Dean, the City Council head, says they simply migrated downstream.) Others wonder why some places the Skripals went on the day of the poisoning, but not others, were cordoned off for safety reasons.

“It’s almost like this part that’s missing between what we’re being told and what happened,” said Richard Coleman, 45, the owner of Greengages Cafe. He added that he remains confident that Russia “or some disreputable organization” was behind the attack. In its approach to transparency, he added, Salisbury is “a very typical English town.”

“They will only open up when they’re really forced to do it by a superior power,” he said. “It’s kind of the British reserve. We never ask questions. We just accept what we’re told.”

Sharon Weeks, who works in a leather goods shop, shrugged when asked about the case.

“The truth will out, normally,” she said. “But sometimes, of course, it doesn’t.”

Analysts say it is nearly impossible to measure the effect of Russia’s campaign to discredit the British explanation in the case. Britons’ trust in their institutions is already declining, in some cases as a result of other events such as Britain’s support of flawed intelligence ahead of the war in Iraq or last year’s devastating fire at Grenfell Tower.

Russia’s campaign in the Skripal case aims to further undermine trust in the authorities, said Ben Nimmo, a fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Just as it did after the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin targeted aggrieved social groups — not difficult to find in the years since the 2008 financial crisis — and capitalized on the disciplined silence of the Western investigators, filling the vacuum with alternative theories.

“It doesn’t have to follow the dictates of the news cycle; it follows the dictates of the Kremlin,” Mr. Nimmo said. “If nobody else is talking about it and the Kremlin is, there will be this drip-feed effect; it will gradually erode public confidence in whatever the target is.”

Ms. Carey says that she is a “little person,” suspicious of the government on many issues, and that she has never once looked at a Kremlin-produced news outlet.

Her skepticism is shared by many of Salisbury’s cabdrivers, many of whom are immigrants from Eastern Europe and South Asia. Boris Kanev, a Bulgarian, said he had become convinced of the Russian case during a visit home in April, when he watched Russian-language television coverage.

When he returned home, he said, he found many in Salisbury who shared his doubts.

“The English people believe it’s the Russians,” he said, but “all those other British people, the Scottish, the Irish, the Welsh,” were more skeptical. “To be honest with you, they don’t trust England,” he said.

Another driver, Steve Odendaal, who is native to Zimbabwe, said the attack could not have been a Russian government operation because it was “too clumsy and too careless.”

Even among those with full confidence in the government case, the episode has left a residue of confusion and mistrust.

Back in March, Mr. Dean, the City Council head, angrily confronted Mr. Hurford-Jones, the director of the radio station, over his decision to follow up on a tip by a Russian journalist questioning whether Salisbury’s CCTV system had been fully operational at the time of the attack. Mr. Dean called the allegation “totally untrue.”

“That would be an example of sources from the Russian administration sowing disinformation in the U.K.,” Mr. Dean said.

Mr. Hurford-Jones bristled at the accusation, saying his journalists had documented problems with CCTV in the past and were justified in following up on the question suggested by Russian colleagues. “We live here, too, you know,” he said. “It doesn’t stop us asking questions.”

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