Theresa May has said two Russian military intelligence officers are the prime suspects in the attempted murder of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in a revelation that looks certain to spark a new freeze in relations between London and Moscow.
The UK prime minister told parliament that the authorities had concluded the two Russian nationals charged earlier on Wednesday with using a chemical weapon on British soil were officers of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.
“This was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level,” she said.
Mrs May said that Britain and its allies would now “deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus” to counter the GRU, although she added that she could not give full details for operational reasons. The GRU posed a “threat to all our allies and all our citizens”, the prime minister said.
She added that Russia had responded to evidence of its involvement in the Salisbury attack, with“obfuscation and lies”, a strategy that she said “reinforces their culpability”.
Following a painstaking six-month investigation into the Salisbury novichok poisonings, which have left one person dead and another four injured, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service said on Wednesday they now had sufficient evidence to bring charges against the two men, who they named as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Borishov.
Describing the operation as “remarkably sophisticated”, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter terror policing network, assistant commissioner Neil Basu, said he believed Mr Petrov and Mr Borishov were travelling under aliases with official Russian passports.
Speaking before Mrs May’s statement, he said he could not say definitively that the evidence showed the Russian state ordered the attack, but said he stood by a previous statement by the prime minister that the Kremlin was behind the operation — a claim Russia has consistently denied.
Yuri Ushakov, Mr Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, said on Wednesday that the Kremlin was confused by Britain’s decision to identify the suspects in the case.
“We heard two names . . . but they do not mean anything, especially since there was a commentary from Scotland Yard that these names are supposedly fictitious,” Mr Ushakov said.
“I do not understand why this was done, and what kind of signal the British side is sending. It is simply very difficult to understand,” he said at a briefing for journalists reported by local news wires.
“Two names. So what?,” Mr Ushakov added.
Speaking before Mrs May blamed the GRU, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said the evidence provided by UK investigators “meant nothing”, and restated Moscow’s position that a joint investigation between British and Russian authorities should be established.
“There have been statements in the media by British officials regarding the suspects in the Salisbury and Amesbury case, and linking this to Russia. The names published in the media, like the photographs, mean nothing to us,” she said.
“We again urge the British side to move from public accusations and information manipulation to practical co-operation through law enforcement agencies,” Ms Zakharova added, in comments reported by state-owned news agencies.
Mr Basu said the police had significant intelligence about the real identities of the two suspects but would not disclose any further details about any previous trips they may have made to the UK or contact with other Russian nationals during their three days in the country in March.
Police believe the attempted assassination inadvertently led to the death of Dawn Sturgess in the nearby town of Amesbury four months later, when she came into contact with the novichok nerve agent hidden in a small perfume bottle discarded by the attackers.
The bottle, which was specially adapted with a pump nozzle and made to look like a Nina Ricci perfume, was found on June 27 by Ms Sturgess’s partner Charlie Rowley, who also briefly fell critically ill.
Police believe the bottle was brought into the country by the attackers and are appealing for any information about what might have happened to it and a box it was carried in between March 4 and June 27, when it was found by Mr Rowley.
Mr Basu said he had “no theory” as to how the bottle was disposed of and why it was discovered by Mr Rowley so many weeks after the initial attack, adding only that it was “reckless”.
Releasing a series of nine CCTV images, taken from 11,000 hours of footage, Mr Basu revealed how the two men arrived in the UK on a flight from Moscow to London Gatwick airport on Friday March 2 — two days before the Skripals were found unconscious on a parkbench in Salisbury.
Mr Basu said the two men then caught a train to London Victoria and went on to Waterloo Station. They later stayed at a hotel in the east end of London. CCTV footage captured images of the pair travelling to Salisbury to carry out a reconnaissance mission on Saturday March 3. They returned to the town the following day to carry out what police say was an attempted assassination.
Footage also shows the men arriving in Salisbury and in the vicinity of Mr Skripal’s house on the morning of the attack. They are later shown returning to London and then going on to Heathrow airport, where they caught an evening flight back to Moscow, three hours after Sergei and Yulia Skripal fell critically ill.
Sue Hemming, director of legal services for the CPS, said there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction on four charges including conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal, the attempted murder of the Skripals as well as the Wiltshire police officer Detective Sergeant Bailey and the use and possession of a banned chemical weapon.
The UK would not be applying for the extradition of Mr Borishov and Mr Petrov, because “the Russian constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals”.
She said European Arrest Warrants and Interpol red notices have been issued in case the two men leave Russia.
Russia’s permanent representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) described the charges as “a provocation”.
The case leaves the UK in an almost identical position to the poisoning of the former Russian FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after being exposed to the radioactive agent polonium-210.
The UK identified Andrey Lugovoy, a former member of Russia’s Federal Protective Service, as the prime suspect, but Russia denied all requests to extradite him.
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