Russia Says U.K. Is Bluffing Over Spy Poisoning, Calls Emergency Chemical Weapons Meeting

Russia has dismissed British allegations that the Kremlin was behind the attempted murder of a former double agent as "a bluff" and accused the U.K. government of a campaign of "political provocation."

According to Russian news agency TASS, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in London said the U.K. government's conclusions "are nothing but assumptions not stemming from objective facts or the course of the investigation."

The latest denial comes as Russia called an emergency meeting of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which President Vladimir Putin says he hopes will end discussion of whether the Kremlin was behind the attack.

Sergei Skripal—a former Soviet and Russian double agent—and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury on March 4. Skripal settled in the U.K. after being released from a Russian jail in a 2010 prisoner exchange. The Skripals have been in the hospital since the attack. Yulia is now conscious and speaking with doctors, while Sergei remains in a critical but stable condition.

Sergei Skripal poisoning
Police officers in forensics suits and protective masks work at the scene of the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, U.K., on March 13. The British government has accused Russia of being behind the attack. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The British government said it is highly likely that the attack—believed to have used the Soviet-era Novichok agent—was a Russian attempt to assassinate Skripal. Russia has denied any involvement in what is believed to be the first offensive use of such a weapon in Europe since the end of World War II.

On Tuesday, Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the U.K.'s Porton Down defense research laboratory, said that scientists have so far been unable to verify the source of the Novichok nerve agent used in the attack.

In response, a spokesperson from the Russian embassy in London said that Moscow knew "from the very start" that British accusations of its involvement were "a bluff." The spokesperson claimed that this "has now been confirmed by the head of the secret lab."

Russian government officials, including foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, have argued that the British government may have been behind the attack. "[The nerve agent attack] could be beneficial to the British government, which has found itself in a difficult situation, unable to fulfill promises they made about Brexit," Lavrov said.

Aitkenhead rejected such suggestions, telling Sky News, "There is no way anything like that could have come from us." He explained, "It is our job to provide the scientific evidence of what this particular nerve agent is, we identified that it is from this particular family and that it is a military grade, but it is not our job to say where it was manufactured." He added that the agent required "extremely sophisticated methods to create, something only in the capabilities of a state actor."

Porton Down
Scientists at the Porton Down facility, in the village of Porton, U.K., have so far been unable to verify the source of the nerve agent used to attack former double agent Sergei Skripal, on March 19. BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

The attack sparked a diplomatic crisis between Russia and the U.K., which grew to include many of Britain's Western allies, including the U.S. Both sides have expelled dozens of diplomats in response, and Russia may yet face additional economic sanctions.

A March 28 statement from Russia's foreign ministry stated, "London acted contrary to all the norms of international law, ethics and even common sense." The statement argued there could have been "involvement of the UK intelligence services." It added, "Unless we receive convincing proof of the opposite, we will regard this incident as an attempt on the life of Russian citizens as part of a large-scale political provocation."

The emergency OPCW meeting will convene in the Hague, the Netherlands, on Wednesday, as per the Russian request. During a visit to the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Tuesday, Putin told a news conference. "We have raised 20 questions for discussion [at the meeting]. I hope that during this discussion a final line on what has happened will be drawn," Reuters reported.

Vladimir Putin in Ankara, Turkey
Russian President Vladimir Putin pauses during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on April 3. Putin said he hopes the OPCW meeting will draw a final line on the attack. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The U.K.'s foreign office says the meeting is nothing but a "diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion," the BBC reported. A spokesman for the department added, "There is no requirement in the chemical weapons convention for the victim of a chemical weapons attack to engage in a joint investigation with the likely perpetrator."

The OPCW is conducting its own independent laboratory tests of samples taken from Salisbury, the results from which are expected within the next week. Though the organization cannot attribute blame, it could request access to former Soviet Union chemical weapon production facilities to establish whether former weapons have been destroyed.