British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for tougher sanctions on Russia and ratcheted up her war of words with the Kremlin after accusing two Russian intelligence officers of carrying out a “barbaric” attack in Salisbury, England, last March.
Ms. May told the House of Commons on Wednesday a pair of officers from the Russian army’s intelligence directorate, known as the GRU, used a nerve agent called novichok to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, at Mr. Skripal’s home in Salisbury.
Mr. Skripal is a former Russian spy who worked at the GRU and also secretly served as a double agent for Britain’s MI5 in the 1990s. He and his daughter both survived the poisoning, but police say two other people later came in contact with a vial used in the attack and one died.
“This was not a rogue operation,” Ms. May said. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.” She stopped short of blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin but said the attack was likely designed to “give a message to those Russians who were living elsewhere who had been involved in matters relating to the Russian state.”
The Skripal case has increased tension between the West and Russia and led to a flurry of sanctions and diplomatic expulsions. It has also focused increasing attention on the activities of the GRU, which traces its roots back to the Russian Revolution and has been linked to a series of nefarious activities including interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, meddling in Ukraine and planning a failed coup in Montenegro.
“The actions of the GRU are a threat to all our allies and to all our citizens,” Ms. May said. She added that Britain’s security services would pay closer attention to the GRU and work with allies to “deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus in order to counter the threat posed by the GRU.”
Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have steadfastly denied any involvement in the attacks and they’ve called on Britain to work with Russian police on the investigation.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the government knew nothing about the two suspects. "A link is being made with Russia. The names published in the media as well as the photographs mean nothing to us," she told Russia's TASS news service. "We again call on the British side to move from public allegations and information manipulation to practical co-operation via law enforcement.”
It’s unclear how much further Britain or other countries will go in punishing Russia for the poisoning. Ms. May acknowledged there is little chance Britain will be able to apprehend the two suspects as long as they remain in Russia. Britain won’t even ask for their extradition to stand trial on charges of attempted murder because prosecutors believe it would be futile.
Ms. May didn’t call for further diplomatic expulsions. Instead, she talked about tightening existing European Union sanctions “against those responsible for cyberattacks and gross human-rights violations, and for new listings under the existing regime against Russia.”
Police are also still gathering information about the poisonings. More than 250 counterterrorism officers have been working on the case, scouring 11,000 hours of CCTV footage and taking 1,400 witness statements.
On Wednesday, police revealed details about the movements of the two suspects, who travelled to Britain under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. The men arrived in London from Moscow on March 2 and stayed at a London hotel before travelling to Salisbury the next day to scout out the city, police said. On Sunday, March 4, they returned to Salisbury and allegedly contaminated Mr. Skripal’s front door with novichok. They flew back to Moscow that night from London, police added. British investigators later found traces of novichok in the hotel room where the men stayed, but police said the levels were not dangerous.
Almost three months after the attack, a local resident, Charlie Rowley, found a box he thought contained perfume in a charity bin behind some stores in Salisbury. Mr. Rowley brought the box home and his partner, Dawn Sturgess, applied the supposed perfume to her wrists. They both became ill and Ms. Sturgess, 44, later died. Police said the perfume bottle contained significant amounts of novichok and they believe it had been left behind by the two suspects after the Skripal attack.
“We do not believe Dawn and Charlie were deliberately targeted, but became victims as a result of the recklessness in which such a toxic nerve agent was disposed of,” said assistant commissioner Neil Basu, the head of counterterrorism policing. He added that police still have plenty of unanswered questions and can’t be sure all of the novichok has been recovered.
“Despite the meticulous and painstaking searches, and although unlikely, it is impossible to guarantee that there are no other materials present in the Salisbury area,” he said. “We don’t yet know where the suspects disposed of the novichok they used to attack the door, where Dawn and Charlie got the bottle that poisoned them or if it is the same bottle used in both poisonings.”