LONDON – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday dismissed British accusations of Russia’s involvement in an ex-spy’s poisoning as “nonsense,” but added that Moscow is ready to cooperate with London in the investigation.
In his first comments on the incident, Putin referred to the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter as a “tragedy,” but added that if the British claim that they were poisoned by the Soviet-designed nerve agent were true, the victims would have been killed instantly.
Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer convicted in his home country of spying for Britain, and his daughter have remained in critical condition following the March 4 poisoning.
“It’s quite obvious that if it were a military-grade nerve agent, people would have died on the spot,” he said. “Russia doesn’t have such means. We have destroyed all our chemical weapons under international oversight unlike some of our partners.”
Putin’s comments came a few hours after British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he has evidence that Russia has been stockpiling a nerve agent in violation of international law “very likely for the purposes of assassination.”
Johnson said the trail of blame for the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury “leads inexorably to the Kremlin.”
Johnson told reporters that Britain has information that within the last 10 years, “the Russian state has been engaged in investigating the delivery of such agents, Novichok agents … very likely for the purposes of assassination.”
He said “they have been producing and stockpiling Novichok, contrary to what they have been saying.”
Putin dismissed the British accusations, emphasizing that an attack on Skripal would make no sense.
“Any reasonable man would understand that it’s just sheer nonsense, complete rubbish to think that anyone in Russia could do anything like that in the run-up to the presidential election and the World Cup,” he said. “It’s simply unthinkable.”
At the same time, Putin, who won another six-year term in Sunday’s election, said that Moscow is open for taking part in the probe together with Britain.
“We are ready for cooperation. We said it right away,” he said. “We are ready to take part in the investigation, but it’s necessary that the other side shows interest in that too. We haven’t seen that, but we don’t exclude the possibility of joint work.”
Johnson said he will brief European Union foreign ministers on the case Monday before meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
He also said officials from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would arrive Monday in Britain to take samples of the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals.
Britain says it is Novichok, a class of powerful nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War. Tests to independently verify the British findings are expected to take at least two weeks, Britain’s Foreign Office said.
Vladimir Chizhov, Moscow’s EU ambassador, said Russia has no chemical weapons stockpiles and wasn’t behind the poisoning.
“Russia had nothing to do with it,” Chizhov told the BBC.
Chizhov pointed out that the U.K. chemical weapons research facility, Porton Down, is only eight miles from Salisbury.
Asked whether he was saying that Porton Down was responsible, Chizhov replied: “I don’t know.”
The British government dismissed the ambassador’s suggestion as “nonsense.”
Johnson said it was “not the response of a country that really believed itself to be innocent.”
Britain and Russia have each expelled 23 diplomats, broken off high-level contacts and taken other punitive steps in the escalating tit-for-tat dispute, which clouded the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election in Russia.
Western powers see the poisoning of the Skripals as the latest sign of increasingly aggressive Russian interference in foreign countries.
Johnson said Britain’s National Security Council will meet this week to discuss what further measures the country might take.
He said these could include “defending ourselves against cyberattack, (and) looking at any economic measures that could be taken against Russians who corruptly obtained their wealth.”
Opposition lawmakers are calling on the British government to clamp down on the illicitly gained money of wealthy Russians in Britain. Critics say U.K. authorities have been slow to investigate the origins of the wealth invested in London’s financial district and property market.
The spy dispute has sent U.K.-Russia relations to Cold War-levels of tension.
Russia’s ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, called for “cooler heads,” telling the Mail on Sunday that the dispute is “escalating dangerously and out of proportion.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter