LONDON − Britain charged two Russians on Wednesday with the attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter, describing the suspects as military intelligence officers almost certainly acting on behalf of the Russian state.
British police revealed images of the two men they said had flown to Britain for a weekend in March to kill former spy Sergei Skripal with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.
Skripal’s daughter Yulia and a police officer who attended the scene also fell ill in the case, which has caused the biggest East-West diplomatic expulsions since the Cold War. A woman later died from Novichok poisoning after her partner brought home a contaminated bottle of counterfeit perfume.
Prime Minister Theresa May lay the blame clearly with the Russian state, describing the suspects as officers in Russia’s GRU military intelligence.
“The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state,” May told parliament.
Skripal, a former GRU officer who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, was found unconscious with Yulia on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.
British authorities identified the suspects as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Police released CCTV images of them, describing a three-day mission that took them from Moscow to London to Salisbury, where they sprayed poison on Skripal’s door before flying straight back to Moscow hours later.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the names given by Britain did not mean anything to Moscow, which has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack.
Britain and dozens of other countries have kicked out scores of Russian diplomats over the incident, and Moscow has responded tit-for-tat with an identical number of expulsions. The affair has worsened Russian relations with the West, which were already under strain over Ukraine, Syria and other issues.
The “remarkably sophisticated attack” appeared to be a clear assassination attempt, said Neil Basu, head of UK Counter Terrorism policing.
The two men arrived in Britain from Moscow on March 2 at London’s Gatwick airport on an Aeroflot flight, and left on March 4. They spent two nights in a London hotel, making two day trips by train to Salisbury, the first for reconnaissance, the second to kill Skripal.
Basu said they were around 40 years old. They travelled under genuine Russian passports although their names are believed to be aliases. It was not their first trip to Britain.
“We would like to hear from anyone who knows them,” Basu said.
Basu said the two men had been filmed by CCTV cameras near Skripal’s house, where Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s, was sprayed on the front door. Traces of Novichok contamination were found in the London hotel room where the two men had stayed.
The Russians are charged with conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of Skripal, his daughter and police officer Nick Bailey who fell ill while attending to the Skripals. They are also charged with use and possession of Novichok, contrary to the Chemical Weapons Act.
A European arrest warrant has been issued for the two Russians, British prosecutors said, but Britain will not ask Moscow to send them to face trial, because Russia’s constitution does not allow its citizens to be extradited.
Basu said the Skripals were making a good recovery.
A woman from a town near Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess, died in July and her partner Charlie Rowley fell ill after Rowley brought home a counterfeit bottle of Nina Ricci perfume he found in a charity collection box. Police say it contained Novichok.
Basu said police had no doubt the two events were connected and they were liaising with prosecutors about bringing charges connected to the poisoning of Sturgess and Rowley.
The case has been likened by British politicians to the murder of Russian dissident and former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a rare radioactive isotope in a London hotel in 2006.
Britain charged two Russians with the murder of Litvinenko but both remain in Russia. One later won a seat in parliament. A British inquiry in 2016 concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved Litvinenko’s murder, an accusation that Moscow has always rejected. (Reuters)