The war of words between Moscow and London over the poisoning of a former Russian spy escalated as Britain’s outspoken Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said his government’s “quarrel” was with Putin rather than the Russian people.
“We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War,” Johnson said in London.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded saying Johnson’s claims violated all rules of diplomatic protocol.
Linking Putin to the attack on Sergei Skripal, who moved to Britain in a 2010 spy swap, “is nothing but shocking and unforgivable behaviour from the point of view of diplomacy,” Peskov told Russian news agencies.
The crisis has unraveled in the thick of Russia’s presidential campaign, with Putin expected to win a fourth Kremlin term on Sunday.
In a rare joint statement, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the United States on Thursday condemned the attack on former double agent Skripal and his daughter Yulia — both in a critical condition in hospital — as an “assault on UK sovereignty”.
The Kremlin has vehemently denied it had a hand in the poisoning of its former spy in the English cathedral city of Salisbury early this month.
Britain’s key allies have closed ranks against Putin after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and suspended high-level contacts, among other measures.
Today Russia said it could hit back at Britain at “any minute” with its own raft of punitive measures.
Earlier this week the Kremlin indicated it would expel British diplomats in response to London’s move as well as adopt other measures that would “most suit Moscow’s interests.” “All the steps will be well thought out,” Peskov said on Friday.
Meanwhile the Investigative Committee, which reports to Putin, opened a probe into the “attempted premeditated murder” of Skripal’s daughter, a Russian national, which it said had been “carried out in a way that was dangerous to the public.”
At the same time a separate probe was opened into the mysterious death of Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian exile who was found dead at his London home this week.
London’s Metropolitan Police have so far been treating his death as “unexplained”.
A spokesman told AFP Friday the police were awaiting the results of a post-mortem.
Putin has barely weighed in on the row, telling a BBC reporter this week: “Sort things out from your side and then we will discuss this with you.”
Russia insists it had no motive to target Skripal with what Britain says was a highly potent Soviet-designed nerve agent called Novichok, in the first such attack in Europe since World War II.
Many Russians remain sceptical that the state was involved in the attack and some analysts didn’t rule out the involvement of ordinary criminals or rogue agents.
The official military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) quoted the former head of Russia’s GRU military intelligence, Fyodor Ladygin, as denying his officers had been involved.
“We don’t care about the fate of a traitor,” said Ladygin.
“For an intelligence officer, a traitor dies immediately he absolutely ceases to exist in the memory. For a traitor, oblivion is death.”
The attack on the Skripals revived memories of the fate of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident who died of Polonium poisoning in a 2006 attack in the UK that London blamed on Moscow.
The leaders of Britain, France, Germany and the United States said Thursday there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the use of the Soviet-designed nerve agent.
In a joint statement, they demanded Moscow “address all questions” related to the attack against Skripal, which they said amounted to a “breach of international law”.
But on Friday, Britain’s opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn poured cold water on claims the Russian state was involved, suggesting instead that “mafia-like groups” could have been responsible.
Skripal had taken his daughter, who was on a visit from Moscow, out for lunch before they both collapsed on a bench on March 4.
The Daily Telegraph said intelligence agencies now believe the nerve agent used on the pair was planted in the daughter’s suitcase before she left Moscow. (AFP)