Attack on Skripals Shows Russia Is ‘Reckless,’ U.K. Says
LONDON — The nerve agent attack on two people in England “demonstrates how reckless Russia is prepared to be, how little the Kremlin cares for the international rules-based order,” one of Britain’s intelligence chiefs said on Thursday, in an unusually public and scathing commentary on a foreign power.
In his first speech after a year as director of the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency, Jeremy Fleming said the threat from Russia had “never gone away,” but had become impossible to ignore after the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter, cyberattacks on Ukranian infrastructure and other actions.
“They’re not playing to the same rules,” he said at a cybersecurity conference in Manchester, England. “They’re blurring the boundaries between criminal and state activity.”
Russia has strenuously denied Britain’s claims that Moscow was responsible for the March 4 attack on a former Russian double agent, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, which has escalated into a bitter clash between the Kremlin and the West.
On Thursday, the international body that monitors compliance with chemical weapons treaties confirmed Britain’s assessment that the toxin used in Salisbury, England, against the Skripals was a powerful, military-grade agent known as novichok, which experts say was developed in the Soviet Union.
The group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, released a report saying that its laboratory analysis of “environmental and biomedical samples” that its experts had collected “confirm the findings of the U.K. relating to the identity of the toxic chemical.”
The team “notes that the toxic chemical was of high purity,” it added, lending support to Britain’s claim that the nerve agent was manufactured with a degree of expertise and sophistication strongly indicating that a national government was responsible. But the agency did not try to say where the chemical was made, or by whom.
Russia, which had demanded that the organization take over the investigation from Britain, was quick to dismiss the findings. Maria Zakharova, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters that the report was part of a continuing British plot against Russia.
“We are all simply drowning in a torrent of misinformation that is in one way or another supported by official London,” she said. “There are no grounds to believe that all of this is not the continuation of a crude provocation against the Russian Federation on the part of the British special services.”
Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, released a statement on the organization’s report, saying, “There can be no doubt what was used and there remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible — only Russia has the means, motive and record.”
Mr. Skripal, 66, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who has lived for several years in Salisbury; his daughter, 33, lives in Russia and was visiting him at the time of the poisoning.
“The attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury was the first time a nerve agent had been deployed in Europe since the Second World War,” Mr. Fleming said.
On Wednesday night, the Metropolitan Police released a statement attributed to Ms. Skripal, turning down a Russian offer of consular assistance, adding another irritant to worsening relations with Moscow. Russia has repeatedly requested access to Ms. Skripal, accusing Britain of improperly denying it contact with one of its citizens.
“I have been made aware of my specific contacts at the Russian Embassy, who have kindly offered me their assistance in any way they can,” Ms. Skripal was quoted as saying in the statement. “At the moment, I do not wish to avail myself of their services, but if I change my mind, I know how to contact them.”
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Russian officials have ridiculed British accusations, while floating an array of theories, some of them contradictory, about what happened in Salisbury. They claim that neither the Soviet Union nor Russia ever had a novichok program, that other former Soviet bloc countries could have supplied the novichok, that the toxin involved was not novichok, and that the British might have poisoned the Skripals.
The statement attributed to Ms. Skripal, 33, met with derision from the Russian authorities, who described it as “an interesting read,” pointedly noting that there was no way to verify it, and suggesting that the remarks raised more questions than answers.
“We would like to make sure that the statement really belongs to Yulia,” the Russian Embassy in Britain said in a statement on Wednesday. “So far, we doubt it much. The text has been composed in a special way so as to support official statements made by British authorities, and at the same time to exclude every possibility of Yulia’s contacts with the outer world — consuls, journalists and even relatives.”
Ms. Skripal was released from a hospital in Salisbury this week after more than a month of treatment for the poisoning, but said she was still enduring the effects of the attack. She noted that her father, who lives in Salisbury, while no longer in critical condition, remained in a perilous state.
“I have left my father in their care, and he is still seriously ill. I, too, am still suffering with the effects of the nerve agent used against us,” her statement said. “I find myself in a totally different life than the ordinary one I left just over a month ago, and I am seeking to come to terms with my prospects, whilst also recovering from this attack on me.”
A police officer who was exposed to the chemical early in the investigation, Detective Sgt. Nick Bailey, was treated at the hospital and released last month.
The poisoning has seriously worsened ties between Britain and Moscow, setting off a chain events that led to the expulsions of hundreds of diplomats around the world, including from Britain, Russia and the United States.
The British police said last week that Ms. Skripal had been made aware of Russian offers of assistance, and that she had turned them down, prompting Russian officials to insist on getting proof that she was acting of her own free will.
The statement released on Wednesday “only strengthens suspicions that we are dealing with a forcible isolation of the Russian citizen,” the Russian Embassy said in its statement. “If British authorities are interested in assuring the public that this is not the case, they must urgently provide tangible evidence that Yulia is all right and not deprived of her freedom.”
The case, filled with high-level intrigue and unexpected twists and turns, was marked by another unexpected development last week when Viktoria Skripal, a 45-year-old Russian accountant and relative of the two poisoned Russians, said the British authorities were untrustworthy and cast doubt on their accounts.
In an interview, Viktoria Skripal said she was “scared” for her relatives. Her comments came after she recorded what she said was a phone call with Yulia Skripal, a copy of which she gave to Russian state television, which broadcast it.
Yulia Skripal’s statement distanced her from her cousin, emphasizing that “no one speaks for me, or for my father, but ourselves.”
“I thank my cousin Viktoria for her concern for us,” she added, “but ask that she does not visit me or try to contact me for the time being. Her opinions and assertions are not mine and they are not my father’s.”
Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Moscow.