By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn
ST PETERSBURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Britain’s next prime minister would forget about the poisoning of a former double agent in England last year in order to improve battered ties.
The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with a nerve agent prompted a wave of diplomatic expulsions and recriminations with ties between London and Moscow shriveling to a post-Cold War low in its wake.
British prosecutors have since charged two Russian military intelligence officers, known by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempted murder in their absence, though the Kremlin has repeatedly denied Russian involvement.
Putin, speaking to media on the sidelines of an economic forum in St Petersburg, said he hoped whoever succeeded Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister would see what he described as the bigger picture and move on from the Skripal incident.
May is due to step down soon after failing to persuade parliament to back a deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The ruling Conservative Party is in the process of choosing her successor.
“When all’s said and done we need to turn this page connected with spies and assassination attempts,” said Putin, who described Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, as London’s spy.
“He’s your agent not ours. That means you spied against us and it’s hard for me to say what happened with him subsequently. We need to forget about all this in the final analysis,” said Putin.
The Russian leader recalled his own lengthy experience working first for the Soviet Union’s KGB spy service and then Russia’s FSB security service, which he suggested meant he knew what he was talking about.
“Global issues linked with common national interests in the economic, social and security spheres are more important than games played by intelligence services. I’m talking to you as an expert, believe me. We need to cast off this fluff and get down to business.”
Putin said better ties between London and Moscow would benefit the interests of 600 British companies he said were working in Russia.
“They want to feel secure …. and we regard them as friends.”
May’s spokeswoman, reacting to Putin’s statement, said London would continue to engage with Russia on matters of international security, but that Moscow had to change its behavior.
“We have been clear that Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilizing behavior undermines its claims to be a responsible international partner,” she said.
“…The PM has made clear on numerous occasions we can only have a different relationship if Russia changes its behavior.”
(Additional reporting by William James in London and by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)