Spies and Lies: Skripal Novichok poisoning–Reading the suspect’s body language

Spies and Lies: Novichok suspects uncovered

What do you think of when you picture a spy?

Perhaps I’ve been watching too many James Bond movies. Somehow, I think I’ve romanticised my vision of the persona of a spy. I’m feeling a little surprised–my idealised vision has broken.

I just viewed a BBC video snippet of the interview with the two suspects in the Skripal Novichok poisoning. I thought spies would be skilled at concealing emotion. It seems I was wrong.


The Skripal Poisoning Backstory


Yulia and Sergei Skripal

In March, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, survived a murder attempt in Salisbury, England. The weapon was Novichok, a powerful and deadly nerve agent developed by Russian scientists. Sergei and Yulia managed to survive the attack, regaining consciousness weeks later. Dawn Sturgess wasn’t as lucky.


Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley

Dawn fell ill within minutes of coming into contact with Novichok in June. Her partner, Charlie Rowley, had found a Nina Ricci perfume bottle, containing what he assumed to be perfume. He gifted it to Dawn, who naturally, sprayed it on her wrists. The ‘perfume’ was Novichok.

It sounds like fiction. It isn't.

It's believed this wasn’t a targeted attack. Instead, it was the unfortunate result of contact with the disposed nerve agent from the Skripal attack.


Novichok Poisoning Murder Suspects


Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov

Otherwise known as…

Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga

Earlier this month, British prosecutors named, and charged, two Russian nationals for the Skripal murder attempt. The British Government believe the suspects to be officers from the Russian military intelligence service, under the aliases of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, insists they are innocent civilians.

In an attempt to convince the world of their innocence, the two suspects appeared on Russian television, claiming to have been in Salisbury as tourists. The Guardian video snippet, below, includes footage from the interview.

Yesterday, news reports claimed Bellingcat, an investigative website, has uncovered Ruslan Boshirov's true identity–intelligence officer, Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga.

Since publishing this post, Bellingcat has identified Alexander Petrov as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin, a trained military doctor in the employ of the GRU. 


Spies and Lies: What do you think?


Reading Body Language

Are ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ and ‘Alexander Petrov’ civilians? Or are they deceiving the world of their true identity?

It’s time to switch on your observation skills and focus on the nonverbal behaviour of the suspects.

Can you Read their Body Language?

Read on for a body Language Analysis…


Reading Body Language–The Skripal Suspects

Novichok Suspects Decoded

Alexander Petrov Body Language

Alexander Petrov: “We are those who were shown to you in the pictures”

Both men swivel gently on their chairs–a pacifying behaviour which brings comfort. There's nothing wrong with it, per se. It indicates stress, which would be natural for most people in these circumstances–innocent or not. Often, when deception is present, we see an increase in stress. However, stress is also, often, present where there is no deception. Therefore, we can never assume deception, no matter how extreme the stress is. All we can objectively conclude is that the suspects feel a level of stress.

As ‘Alexander Petrov’ speaks, we see two telling behaviours from ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ (sitting on the left)–an eye block (see explanation below), followed by another stress indicator, a pronounced gulp.

Here’s where it gets interesting…


Ruslan Boshirov Body Language

Ruslan Boshirov: “Ruslan Boshirov”

As ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ gives his name, we see him eye block for the second time. This is an involuntary behaviour where the eyelids close over the eyes momentarily. It lasts longer than a blink–it indicates dislike or discomfort–within the moment. Always, nonverbal responses occur within the moment, making them accurate indicators of emotion, pinpointing the exact area of concern.

When faced with something they dislike, children tend to eye block with a physical covering of their eyes with their hands. It’s the physical removal of the stimulus–the cause of their dislike. Even congenitally blind children eye block in this way, despite not being able to observe this in others.

As children grow up, they learn to hide their emotions to fit in with social norms. They do this by modifying and concealing their behaviour. In adults, an eye blocking behaviour is usually seen as a covering of the eyes with the eyelids, instead of the hands–as we see here. It has the same meaning it’s just a modified version of the behaviour.

This tells us ‘Ruslan Boshirov’ doesn’t like, or feels uncomfortable with, what he’s saying–his name. For me, that raises a red flag, given the purpose of the interview. My attention is immediately piqued further, with his expression of contempt (tightness in the mouth–his left). This is so subtle, it’s barely visible to an untrained eye.

The other thing to point out here, is his blink rate. It’s fairly high, again indicating stress.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting…


Alexander Petrov Body Language

Alexander Petrov: ”Alexander Petrov”

As ‘Alexander Petrov’ gives his name, we see a one-sided (his left) shoulder shrug. Did you see it?

While there is no single behaviour indicative of deception, this one gets pretty close. A double shrug (both shoulders) indicates the speaker is confident in the words that they speak. Whereas, a one-sided (or single) shrug is only a fragment of this–an ‘emblematic slip’ or concealment.

The single shrug contradicts the words spoken. Words say one thing and behaviour says another. It's incongruences such as these that alert us to potential deception.


Six Revealing Behaviours


We observed six telling behaviours within the first six seconds of the video clip. All of these were around a crucial part of the interview, enough to alert us to potential deception. Are they spies? There seems to be a paradox here–they don't come close to fitting my romanticised image of spies. Did Bond reveal his emotions so openly?

Russian spies and nerve agent poisoning may seem a far cry from the lives of most of us, but what if someone close to you was potentially concealing something? The same behaviours could be there–would you spot them?

When you can spot behaviours like this within your interactions, it opens up additional information that most people aren't privy to. It gives you the upper hand.

Most people ignore these behaviours because they don't observe them. Those that do are able to adapt their own behaviour, responding more appropriately–potentially making better decisions.

Did you spot the concerning behaviours–could you outsmart a spy?

Learn • Develop • Improve


Want to see more eye blocking?

Remember the BBC News interview with South Korea expert, Professor Kelly? He was interrupted by his children, mid-interview, and the clip went viral. While most people felt his discomfort, what they didn’t consciously observe was his eye blocking–a series of 9 eye blocks, each one on cue with a stimulus. You can read more about this behaviour and watch the clip in this post.

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