Russia was in a defensive mood after British Prime Minister Theresa May accused it of involvement in the poisoning of a former spy on British soil and issued a deadline for Moscow to explain itself, tying the incrimination to everything from Russia’s upcoming presidential election to an alleged effort to discredit the country as it prepares to host the World Cup.
While addressing parliament on March 12, May said that either the Russian state was directly responsible for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4 or it had allowed the Cold War-era nerve agent that was used to get into the hands of others.
She said Russia had until the end of the day on March 13 to explain the use of the substance identified as part of the Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and ’80s.
Russian officials and others were quick to respond, many saying the indictment was politically motivated.
“It is a circus show in the British Parliament,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists shortly after May’s comments. “The conclusion is obvious: It’s another political information campaign, based on a provocation.”
When asked directly by a BBC Moscow correspondent whether Russia was responsible for the poisonings, Russian President Vladimir Putin was dismissive. “Look, we’re busy here with agriculture,” Putin said on the sidelines of a trip to the National Grain Center in Krasnodar Krai. “As you can see, the aim is to create good conditions for people’s lives, and you ask me about some tragedies.”
Putin went on to say the British authorities should “get to the bottom of things there, first,” and “then we’ll talk.”
Other Russian officials, however, seemed to take issue with Russia’s lack of involvement in the investigation.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, lamented the British-centric tone of the accusations in comments reported by Interfax on March 13.
“’We ourselves’ have made a decision, ‘we ourselves’ have conducted an investigation, ‘we ourselves’ have issued a verdict, ‘we ourselves’ are holding a trial,” Kosachyov said, mimicking public accusations put forth by London that he suggested lacked logic.
For his part, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 13 that Moscow would not respond to May’s ultimatum until London provided access to the nerve agent that was allegedly used.
“Russia is not guilty,” Lavrov said.
Igor Lebedev, deputy speaker of the State Duma, meanwhile, appeared to pour cold water on hopes of finding those responsible soon, if ever.
“In theory, anyone could do it on anyone’s orders,” Lebedev was quoted as saying by Interfax on March 13, saying he believed it would never be known who carried out the poisonings. At any rate, he said, the incident “delays and complicates yet further the process of restoring the relations between our countries, unfortunately.”
Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained since the murder in London of former KGB agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.
A British public inquiry found the 2006 killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi — a former KGB bodyguard who later became a member of the Russian parliament.
Both Kovtun and Lugovoi dismissed May’s allegations.
“Prime Minister May’s statements on Russia’s involvement in Skripal’s poisoning can only show that the incident is biased and staged. Any evidential basis essentially concerning the incident will be fully ignored in the investigation of the Skripal case. Let’s not forget that Russia was also accused at once following Litvinenko’s death,” Kovtun told Interfax on March 12.
“Any chemist or physicist will tell you that to determine whether or not a particular country was involved, there have to be at least some serious tests on a serious expert level,” Lugovoi said.
“When such claims are made within days, this only points to the irresponsibility of the person making them, and may attest that finding out the truth is not the goal,” Lugovoi said.
Others pointed to more sinister motives with Russia being framed ahead of this summer’s soccer World Cup and the country’s presidential election on March 18, a poll Putin is expected to win easily due to his control over the levers of power and gradual marginalization of the country’s opposition.
“I think this is a provocation ahead of the election and the World Cup,” said Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy head of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
This could have been a provocation either by “British intelligence agencies, or by some morons, or maybe by a third party,” he said.
Kommersant notes this isn’t the first time Novichok has been suspected in a poisoning. The Russian business daily says the deadly nerve agent was suspected in the murder of a top banker more than 20 years ago.
Ivan Kivelidi, 46, died on August 1, 1995, three days after tiny quantities of a mystery nerve agent were found on his telephone and possibly slipped into his tea. His secretary, Zara Ismailova, also died after apparently being poisoned.
According to Russian reports, the Novichok group of nerve agents were developed by the State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology (GosNIIOkhT).
The Moscow-based institute has refused to comment on the claims.
“The work of our enterprise is classified. We do not comment on media information,” the GosNIIOKhT general-director’s office told Interfax on March 13.
But even if the institute was the developer, a senior Russian official has said Russia has gotten rid of its stockpiles of Novichok.
Igor Morozov, a member of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told RIA Novosti on March 13 that Russia had not only stopped production of the nerve agent but had destroyed all stockpiles, as mandated, he noted, under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Conventions.
Russia finished destroying its chemical weapons arsenal, once the largest in the world at nearly 40,000 metric tons, in September 2017.