Moscow’s denials over its involvement in the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain are growing “increasingly absurd,” British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson said yesterday.
The Kremlin has rejected allegations by London and its allies that Russia was behind the March 4 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury as “nonsense.”
As international chemical weapons experts were due to arrive in Britain to investigate the incident, EU foreign ministers voiced their support for Britain as they gathered for a meeting in Brussels yesterday.
“The Russian denials grow increasingly absurd,” Johnson said, as he arrived for the meeting. “This is a classic Russian strategy of trying to conceal the needle of truth in a haystack of lies and obfuscation.”
London says the Soviet-designed military grade nerve agent Novichok was used to target Skripal, and on Thursday Britain, France, Germany and the US issued a joint statement blaming Russia for the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II.
“What really strikes me, talking to European friends and partners today, is that 12 years after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, they’re not fooling anybody any more,” Johnson said.
“There is scarcely a country round the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behavior,” he said.
Russian dissident Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive agent polonium in London in 2006 in an attack Britain also blamed on the Kremlin.
Johnson was to update his European counterparts on the investigation, but yesterday’s meeting was not expected to agree on any measures targeting Russia, which is already under heavy EU sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and meddling in Ukraine.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini said the bloc stood in “full solidarity” with Britain over the incident, which she called “completely unacceptable.”
EU leaders are also set to discuss the issue at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were yesterday due to arrive in Britain to collect samples of the toxin.
“These will then be dispatched to highly reputable international laboratories selected by the OPCW for testing with results expected to take a minimum of two weeks,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected allegations Russia was behind the attack.
“It’s complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup,” Putin told supporters Sunday after winning a fourth term as president.
“We have destroyed all chemical weapons,” he said, adding that Moscow was ready to take part in the investigation.
Putin’s comments came after Johnson accused Russia of stockpiling the nerve agent used in the attack.
“We actually have evidence within the last 10 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,” Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
Johnson said Britain would target wealth linked to the Kremlin in response to the poisoning of the former Russian double agent.
“Where people have obtained wealth by corruption and where we can see a link with the Kremlin, with Vladimir Putin, it may be possible to have unexplained wealth orders and other sanctions on those individuals,” he said.
Johnson said the government was considering something similar to the US “Magnitsky Act,” which was adopted in 2012 to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
The act imposed a visa ban and froze the assets of Russian officials implicated in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, a tax fraud whistleblower who died in Russian custody in 2009.
Johnson accused the Russians of “smug sarcasm and denial” in response to the accusations, and said the international community was behind Britain.
Moscow’s “malign, disruptive behavior” internationally was the reason why allies were “inclined not to give Russia the benefit of the doubt,” he added.
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