When Sergei Skripal was discovered in distress with his daughter on a park bench in Salisbury, England no one would have believed such a relatively small incident would be capable of jump-starting a Second Cold War, but that seems to be where we are. Both Russia and the United Kingdom have drawn battle lines, expelled diplomats, fought in international bodies and imposed sanctions. Short of actually going to war, there is little more that could be going badly between Moscow and "the West." Let's examine who Skripal was and why this pawn has had such an outsized effect on the game.
Skripal was a colonel in military intelligence. He was involved in counter-intelligence, and he had all the names of GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) foreign agents. He sold these names (or their thirty-odd "greatest hits") to the Brits for approximately $100,000. This man had a drinking problem like many Russians, diabetes which forced him to retire early and a decidedly shady character, being willing to sell out his country with no particular ideology other than being a corrupt show-off. His nickname was the "spy with the Vuitton bag." On a colonel's salary? Of course not. Sergei was, in other words, a rat.
After being imprisoned for espionage and freed in a spy swap by Russia, he settled in Britain at the UK taxpayer's expense, being a turned "double agent." His house is worth a few hundred thousand pounds; he drives a midrange BMW, and he still enjoys plenty of alcohol despite his disabling diabetes. When he was poisoned, he happened to be living in the same town as his MI6 handler Pablo Miller whom he met with at least monthly, in public, in Salisbury.
Miller recruited Skripal (others say he was a walk-in) in the 1990s in Spain and in 2018 Miller was working for a company called Orbis Business Intelligence which is Christopher Steele's company, of Golden Showers Dossier ("GSD") fame; the very same dossier John McCain and John Brennan tried to use to bring down Trump with after Hillary Clinton essentially ignored it. It was hearsay to an attorney, RUMINT to a spook, but it has served as the foundation of some currently active angles of inquiry, i.e. Robert Mueller's Special Counsel investigation.
The sort of information contained in the GSD is more something Sergei Skripal could access than Chris Steele or Pablo Miller. It is "highly likely" (to borrow Theresa May's favorite legal term) that Skripal was helping MI6 get information on Trump's connections to Russians, above and beyond his Ritzy nighttime gallivanting, information about payments to campaigns and leaks of political opposition against Hillary Clinton. The people Skripal sold the names of in the 1990s and the people named in the GSD (oligarchs and Russian "friends of Putin") are the kinds of actors who would want to silence, eliminate prophylactically, or terminate as vengeance a man in Sergei's position and who would know how to do it, even with a WMD such as the dreaded Novichok.
The bulk of the evidence, scientific and legal, suggests that A234 Novichok is what injured the Skripals. Questions have been raised about BZ and Fentanyl, and about the research samples versus ones taken from the affected persons, however the symptoms seem more organophosphate than opiate or hallucinogenic. Whether what hurt the Skripals and Officer Nick Bailey (who has conveniently disappeared into D-notice deep space) was developed in Russia or Uzbekistan is a subject of debate. The certainty, such as it is, ends there.
British investigators leaked a series of seven or eight possible ingestion routes before settling on a door handle theory that feels weak in light of the many people who went in and out of the house and the fact the poison took so long to affect the victims, while a policeman was immediately stricken. If it was indeed the door, it was a tiny, focused poisoning attack and not the "military-grade [!!] nerve agent [what nerve agent isn't?] attack" on England by Russia that Prime Minister Theresa May kept insisting that it was.
President Putin was so obviously the prime suspect, given the origins of the substance and Skripal's treason (that was ongoing, despite the fact that Skripal would have promised not to engage in anti-Russia work as part of the terms of the swap that freed him), that one immediately has to question whether the poisoner was someone trying to frame up the Russians or just a "patriotic" Russian tying up a loose end. The only time Novichok A234 nerve agent was used in an assassination it was used by Chechen mobsters and purchased from a corrupt Russian (Leonid Rink). The Novichok was applied to a telephone receiver and killed two people. Dastardly, but very targeted. Not like a drive-by shooting at all.
The very naming of such a targeted attack as Salisbury as "the first military-grade nerve agent attack in Europe since World War Two" made Theresa May's government look weak and silly. That the histrionic English accusations actually boosted Putin's popularity in the crucial last days before the Russian election was what footie fans would call an own goal.
Theresa May was not done. She had her fool to deploy and a radio salesman to talk chemical science before she would throw a media boycott blanket in the form of a "cease publication" (or DSMA) notice on everything about Skripal's not being "quietly retired" as she initially stated. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson's hyperbolic rantings made the world immediately suspect an anti-Russia propaganda operation, not a proper police investigation. The war references, the exaggeration of the attack itself and the sight of half of Salisbury being boarded up and invaded by space-suited raiders made England look positively ridiculous during a month when dozens of people were stabbed with knives, burned with acid and shot with guns on the streets of her cities with most cases completely unpunished and hardly noticed.
The head of Porton Down, chemical weapons makers to the Queen, and ex-Motorola executive Gary Aitkenhead, contradicted May and Johnson by not being able to name the country-of-origin of said Novichok. Meanwhile, the Russians were pushing back and asking for access to the Skripals. No access was given, and not a single picture has emerged of the stricken victims. Yulia Skripal left a job, boyfriend, friends, cat, etc. at her home in Russia and she's now completely incommunicado? There are many ways Britain could let her story be told, or at least her well-being assured, without endangering her life or releasing her location.
So much is being hidden from the public, including Sergei Skripal himself. Where is he? Is he even still in Salisbury? Was he the source of the claims in the GSD? Does he know he stands to make millions, even tens of millions, if he sells his story and goes full Ian Fleming?
The damage to Russia-Britain relations could not be graver. Putin is still unchallenged and on top in Russia, coordinating with China, Turkey and Iran. Russia is still a UN Security Council member and May's government has never been or looked weaker. So, until the British government produces an actual live human being with a real name to attach to the Skripal affair (other than Pablo Miller, also known as Antonio Alvarez de Hidalgo, who you are not supposed to know about) they look incompetent at best, and most likely culpable in a cover-up of British government involvement in the GSD with a corrupt, diabetic old drunk they had a duty to protect from vendetta seekers. The expelled diplomats and their families, and with them the bridges they build, are just collateral damage in the affairs of spies and state.
Who poisoned Sergei Skripal? Diverse parties have a motive. Russian state looks likeliest, especially if he broke the rules post-swap, but lots of people would hate him for his many sell-outs, people who might not feel badly if the Russian state was fingered for the crime. So far three people are missing (the Skripals and the police officer) and two guinea pigs and one kitty are dead. Another cat is missing, goes by Nash Van Drake. Is he the missing link?