FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006 file photo, Sergei Skripal speaks to his lawyer from behind bars seen on a screen of a monitor outside a courtroom in Moscow. It has been reported on Monday, March 5, 2018 by the British media that Skripal is in critical condition after exposure to 'unknown substance' in English city of Salisbury. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)
Who is Sergei Skripal?
01:56 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Both of the options, whichever way the pendulum ultimately swings, are staggering.

Did a former Russian spy – after eight years in relative obscurity in a tiny British city, following the premature, tragic deaths of his wife and son – end up exposing himself and his only remaining child to a substance that rendered them both critically ill?

Or did the Kremlin, barely a fortnight before presidential elections, choose a public eatery and meeting between a denounced “traitor” and his daughter to deliver a poison that not only punished the “traitor” that they had exchanged gladly in a spy swap with the US eight years ago, but also added endless fuel to the British government’s contention that Russia is its main threat?

Either way, little of what happened on Sunday afternoon fits in sleepy Salisbury. As of Monday, it was still a relatively local affair.

The nature of the police response – initially – suggested that this might have been something less than a state-sponsored assassination attempt.

Wiltshire police were cordoning off the area and scouring bins in protective suits, while the main help that had arrived from outside came from Kent police.

But on Tuesday morning, Britain’s leading counter-terrorism police chief, AC Mark Rowley, said his unit’s specialisms were being used to help with the investigation.

He stressed it wasn’t a counter-terrorism investigation – which would be declared, if a state assassination were a likelihood. Much of the day passed, during which it appeared the Wiltshire police would handle the case.

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Former double agent remains critically ill
03:02 - Source: CNN

Then UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson and other political figures spoke. Johnson pledged to respond “robustly” if Russia had indeed poisoned its former spy. More statements from Wiltshire police followed, adding only that one of the emergency personnel who responded was still being treated.

Then in the afternoon, after the political noise subsided, the Metropolitan Police stepped forward to say that – while this still was not a counter terrorism investigation – their counter-terrorism unit would take the lead on the case.

It was a curious timeline of events. Local media had on Monday reported the substance found at the scene to be similar to fentanyl: a lethally strong opioid available even on Salisbury’s soporific streets.

Forty-eight hours, the identity of the victims and some pre-emptive, geopolitical statements later, one British tabloid is suggesting – without much of a source – it could be “the poisoner’s poison”, Thallium.

There is a lot of excitement, where it would be preferable to see facts.

Indeed, the slim facts of the case emerge into a Britain unsure how to deal with the Russian threat.

Russia is a serious problem. It stands accused of assassinating people as well as war crimes in Syria and has invaded Ukraine (twice).

The UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has recently issued a series of statements further amplifying the Russian threat, as his department asks for greater funding for the armed forces.

Britain has seen cases of Russians who have criticized the Kremlin meet dubious ends here in the past decade. The most high-profile case being the 2006 murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.

The Skripal case falls awkwardly into a political climate eager to point fingers at Moscow. And the succession of British officials who have to premise their threats of retaliation with the caveat: “we don’t know what happened here, but,” is testament to that.

Given paucity of information, the continued declaration by Britain’s top police that this isn’t a counter-terrorism case yet, and the dizzying barrage of theories, we are left to guess.

But the pendulum of guesswork – that swings wildly between an assassination attempt and an overdose – only visits those extreme points briefly. It is entirely possible that what happened might fit in the uncomfortable, more boring gray area between those two extremes. Imagine that…