(CNSNews.com) – Russia does not possess nerve agents of the type used against a former Russian spy in Britain and has destroyed its chemical weapons stockpiles, President Vladimir Putin said Sunday.
In his first public comment on the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, Putin called allegations that Russia was behind the attempted assassination “absolute nonsense,” saying it was inconceivable such a thing would occur ahead of presidential elections and Russia’s hosting of the world’s biggest sporting event, the soccer World Cup.
“Russia does not possess such agents,” the official TASS news agency quoted him as saying. “We have destroyed all our chemical arsenals under control of international observers.”
Despite the diplomatic rift with Britain, Putin said Russian remains ready to cooperate with Britain in a joint investigation, but so far the other side had no willingness to do so.
The comments by Putin on the day of a major election victory directly refuted a claim made by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hours earlier.
During an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Johnson charged that there is evidence “within the last ten years” that Russia has continued to make and to stockpile nerve agents including “Novichok,” the substance identified by British scientists as having been used in the attempt to kill the Skripals.
“We actually have evidence, within the last ten years, that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” he said.
Underlining the allegation, Britain’s Foreign Office later issued a statement repeating it:
“The Foreign Secretary revealed this morning that we have information indicating that within the last decade, Russia has investigated ways of delivering nerve agents likely for assassination,” it said. “And part of this program has involved producing and stockpiling quantities of Novichok. This is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.”
On Monday, experts from the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the convention, are due to arrive in Britain to begin an independent analysis of the nerve agent administered to the Skripals in the city of Salisbury on March 4.
The agent was identified as the Russian-made Novichok by Britain’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, considered a world leader in the field.
Based on that determination, Britain last week demanded that Russia explain what happened.
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others,” Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons.
After Britain said Russia failed to provide a satisfactory response to its questions, May accused Moscow of a “state-sponsored murder attempt” and as a first response expelled 23 Russian diplomats who the government said were “undeclared intelligence officers.”
As is customary, Russia at the weekend retaliated, announcing the expulsion of the same number of British diplomats and the closure of the British Consulate in St Petersburg and the British Council in Moscow.
As the diplomatic rift widens, the Foreign Office in London announced that the government’s national security council will meet early this week to consider next steps.
In a statement on Thursday, the Trump administration joined the governments of Germany and France in supporting Britain’s stance in the matter.
Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have circulated several theories challenging Britain’s view of what happened in Salisbury, including provocation by anti-Russian elements in the West or Ukraine.
In the same BBC program on Sunday, a senior Russian diplomat seemed to insinuate that scientists at Porton Down, just a few miles away from Salisbury, may themselves have been responsible for the nerve agent.
After insisting that Russia has “no [nerve agent] stockpiles whatsoever,” Ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov said that in order to have identified the substance, British scientists would have had to have had a sample with which to compare it.
“Why don’t you ask yourself the question, how come the British authorities so quickly managed to designate the nerve agent used as something called Novichok?” he asked interviewer Marr.
“When you have a nerve agent or whatever, you check it against certain samples that you retain in your laboratories.”
And Porton Down, he added, “is actually only eight miles from Salisbury.”
Asked directly whether he was accusing Porton Down of responsibility, Chizhov said, “I don’t know.”
British officials have been frustrated by the tone of some of the Russian response to an incident that has left the Skripals hospitalized and in a “critical condition,” left a British police first responder seriously ill, and potentially put at risk many other people in the vicinity of the shopping center in Salisbury where the attack took place.
Johnson described the Russian response as a “mixture of smug sarcasm, and denial, obfuscation and delay.”