RUSSIAN ex-spy Sergei Skripal was poisoned with a nerve gas in Salisbury as a warning to other double agents, a top lawyer has claimed.

Ben Keith, a barrister specialising in Russian political cases, believes the attack was meant to send a message to any spies thinking of "betraying" Moscow. He said that high-ranking Kremlin officials may have ordered Mr Skripal's poisoning to show that "traitors are never safe".

Mr Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yuli are fighting for their lives in hospital after falling ill in the Wiltshire city on Sunday.

Counter-terror police have launched a major probe into how the pair were targeted with a nerve agent. 

Mr. Keith told "I don't think this incident was part of any overarching strategy by Vladimir Putin to sow discord in the West." "This is more likely about about personal animosity to anyone who's opposed to the Russian state and has been spying against Russia.

"It's not yet clear whether this poisoning was state-sponsored, or whether it was carried out by a faction who are trying to flex their muscles.

"But Putin is popular in Russia because he's seen as a very strong figure. Part of the reason for this perception is that, under his leadership, traitors can't escape, they're never safe."

Boris Johnson said the case had "echoes" of the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who was fatally poisoned in London in 2006.

The Foreign Secretary also said the UK would respond "robustly" if it there was state involvement.

But the Russian embassy hit back, saying it was "completely untrue" to suggest the country's special services were involved.

An embassy spokesman also criticised Mr Johnson for speaking "in such a manner as if the investigation was already over".

Mr Skripal was convicted in 2006 of passing state secrets to MI6 before being given refuge in the UK as part of a spy swap in 2010.

This article was originally published by the Daily Express on 7 March 2018 and can be viewed online here.

Ben Keith is ranked in Chambers and Partners as a band 1 leader in the field of Extradition at the London Bar. Ben is also ranked in the Legal 500 as a band 1 leading individual in international crime and extradition at the London Bar.