Putin calls poisoned ex-spy Skripal a scumbag and traitor

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 12, 2018. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS

By Dmitry Zhdannikov and Denis Pinchuk

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday called Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent poisoned in Britain, a scumbag who had betrayed Russia.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury in March. Britain says they were poisoned with a nerve agent administered by Russian intelligence officers.

Russia denies involvement in the affair, which has deepened its international isolation.

“I see that some of your colleagues are pushing the theory that Mr Skripal was almost some kind of human rights activist,” Putin said at an energy forum in Moscow when asked about the case.

“He was simply a spy. A traitor to the motherland. He’s simply a scumbag, that’s all,” Putin added, in remarks that drew applause from parts of the audience.

The Russian leader, a former intelligence officer himself, said the Skripal scandal had been artificially exaggerated, but said he thought it would fade from the headlines at some point and that the sooner it quietened down the better.

Putin said Moscow was still ready to cooperate with Britain when it came to investigating what happened, an offer London has so far declined to take up.

British officials say the poisoning was carried out by Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency almost certainly acting with the approval of Russian officials. Russia has denied that.

‘ONE OF OLDEST PROFESSIONS’

Putin also dismissed the allegation that Russia was responsible for the accidental poisoning of Dawn Sturgess, a Salisbury-area woman who British police said died after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok which her partner had found in a discarded perfume bottle.

“What, did some guys rock up and start poisoning homeless people over there?” said Putin, repeating a description of Sturgess and her partner used by some Russian state media. “What rubbish.”

Skripal had served time in a Russian prison for selling information to Britain, and Moscow had agreed to release him as part of a spay swap, said Putin, suggesting Russia therefore had no motive to kill him.

“We didn’t need to poison anyone over there. This traitor Skripal was caught, he was punished and did five years in prison. We let him go, he left the country and he continued to cooperate there and consult some intelligence services. So what?”

The two Russian men Britain accuses of jetting to England to try to murder Skripal said in a TV interview last month that they were innocent tourists who had visited the city of Salisbury to see its cathedral.

London says their explanation is so far-fetched as to all but prove Russia’s involvement, while investigative website Bellingcat has published a picture of a decorated Russian military intelligence colonel it named as Anatoliy Chepiga who resembles one of the two men Britain caught on CCTV.

Putin said spy scandals were nothing new.

“Did problems between intelligence services start yesterday?” quipped Putin.

“As is well known, espionage, like prostitution, is one of the world’s oldest professions.”

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Russian proposal for joint Salisbury toxin inquiry ‘perverse’: Britain

Police officers guard the cordoned off area around the home of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Russia’s proposal for a joint inquiry into the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England is a “perverse” attempt to escape blame, Britain told an emergency meeting on Wednesday of the global chemical weapons watchdog.

Moscow convened the watchdog’s decision-making executive to counter accusations by Britain that it was behind the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a military-grade nerve toxin in the English city of Salisbury.

In a tweet, the British delegation said Moscow’s idea was “perverse…, a diversionary tactic, and yet more disinformation designed to evade the questions the Russians authorities must answer”.

John Foggo, Britain’s acting envoy to the OPCW, said Russian assertions that the attack may have been carried out by Britain, the United States or Sweden were “shameless, preposterous statements…

“It seems clear that Russia will never accept the legitimacy of any investigation into chemical weapons use unless it comes up with an answer Russia likes,” Foggo said in a statement to the closed-door meeting.

The European Union also dismissed the proposal and diplomats said it was unlikely to be approved by the required two-thirds majority of the 41-nation executive of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ executive.

Russia said it had the support of 14 countries. “We believe it is crucial to ensure this problem be resolved within the legal framework using the entire potential of the OPCW,” Russia’s representative to the watchdog, Aleksandr Shulgin, was quoted by the Russian news agency TASS as telling the meeting.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday the OPCW should draw a line under a case that has triggered the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War, with retaliatory, tit-for-tat expulsions of scores of diplomats. [

Scientists at the Porton Down biological and chemical weapons laboratory in England have concluded that the toxin was among a category of Soviet-era nerve agents called Novichok, though could not yet determine whether it was made in Russia.

ACCUSATIONS

Moscow denies any involvement in the attack and accuses Britain of whipping up anti-Russian hysteria in the West.

The OPCW, which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has taken samples from the site of the Salisbury attack and is expected to provide results from testing at two designated laboratories next week.

Shulgin said earlier that if Moscow was prevented from taking part in the testing of the Salisbury toxin samples, it would reject the outcome of the OPCW research.

Diplomats said Russia’s proposal for a second investigation would not pass the OPCW’s executive council whose members are elected by the OPCW’s 192 member states and include major powers such as Russia, Britain and the United States.

Russia’s request to open a parallel, joint Russian-British inquiry is seen by Western powers as an attempt to undermine the ongoing investigation by OPCW scientists.

The EU said it was very concerned Moscow was considering rejecting the OPCW findings.

“It is imperative that the Russian Federation responds to the British government’s legitimate questions, begins to cooperate with the OPCW Secretariat and provides full and complete disclosure to the OPCW of any programme with relevance to the case,” said an EU statement read to the council session.

Instead of cooperating with the OPCW, the EU statement said, Russia had unleashed “a flood of insinuations targeting EU member states…This is completely unacceptable.”

Skripal remains in critical but stable condition, while his daughter has shown signs of improvement.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Only Russia could be behind U.K. poison attack: toxin’s co-developer

Vil Mirzayanov, the former Soviet scientist who developed the chemical agent Novichok, is pictured in Princeton, New Jersey, United States March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Hussein al Waaile

By Joseph Ax

PRINCETON, N.J. (Reuters) – A Russian chemist who helped develop the Soviet-era nerve agent used to poison a former Russian double agent in southern England said only the Russian government could have carried out the attack with such a deadly and advanced toxin.

Vil Mirzayanov, 83, said he had no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible, given that Russia maintains tight control over its Novichok stockpile and that the agent is too complicated for a non-state actor to have weaponized.

“The Kremlin all the time, like all criminals, denying – it doesn’t mean anything,” Mirzayanov said in an interview in his home in Princeton, New Jersey, where he has lived in exile for more than 20 years.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence agent who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter are fighting for their lives after they were found on March 4 collapsed on a bench, having been poisoned with Novichok, according to British authorities.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Putin was behind the attack, a charge Russia denies.

May on Tuesday gave Russia a midnight deadline to explain how the toxin showed up in the southern England cathedral city of Salisbury.

Russian officials have described the British allegations of Kremlin involvement as a “circus show.” They say┬áBritain has produced no concrete evidence that the Russian state was involved, has refused to share technical information about the poisoning with Russian scientists, and is bent on discrediting Russia before its hosts the soccer World Cup in June and July.

‘NOBODY KNEW’

Mirzayanov said he spent years testing and improving Novichok, the name given to a group of chemical weapons that Russia secretly created during the latter stages of the Cold War. The weapon is more than 10 times as powerful as the more commonly known VX, another nerve agent.

The program eventually produced tons of the agent, the dissident said, which Russia has never acknowledged.

“Novichok was invented and studied and experimented and many tons were produced only in Russia. Nobody knew in this world,” Mirzayanov said in an interview Tuesday at his home in a leafy suburb 35 miles (56 km) southwest of New York City.

In the early 1990s, as countries around the world began signing the Chemical Weapons Convention, a multinational arms treaty to prevent the development and use of chemical weapons, Mirzayanov grew angry that Russia was hiding Novichok’s existence.

He was fired and jailed after detailing the new generation of chemical weapons in a news article, though the charges were eventually dismissed under pressure from Western officials.

He moved to the United States, where he published a book exposing what he knew about Russia’s covert Cold War chemical weapons program.

The effort involved as many as 30,000 or 40,000 people, he said, including perhaps 1,000 who worked on Novichok specifically, though many were not aware of the program’s true nature.

The agent can be synthesized by mixing harmless compounds together. That made it easier for Russia to produce materials for Novichok under the cover of manufacturing agricultural chemicals, he said.

Novichok attacks the nervous system, making it impossible for victims to breathe and causing unimaginable pain, said Mirzayanov, who watched countless lab animals, including mice, rats and dogs, subjected to the poison.

“It’s torture,” he said. “It’s absolutely incurable.”

Mirzayanov said Putin likely chose to use a painful nerve agent to frighten other dissidents into silence.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I never imagined even in my bad dreams that this chemical weapon, developed with my participation, would be used as a terrorist weapons.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker)

Britain gives Putin until midnight to explain nerve attack on former spy

The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicho

By Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain gave President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to strike down a former Russian double agent who passed secrets to British intelligence.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4 when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the English cathedral city of Salisbury.

Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was to blame after Britain identified the substance as part of the highly-lethal Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country,” May told parliament on Monday. “Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

Russia holds a presidential election on March 18 in which Putin, himself a former KGB spy, is expected to coast easily to a fourth term in the Kremlin. It has denied any role in the poisoning and says Britain is whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.

Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, summoned to the Foreign Office, was given until the end of Tuesday to explain what happened or face what May said were “much more extensive” measures against the $1.5 trillion Russian economy.

If no satisfactory Russian response is received by midnight London time then May will outline Britain’s response in parliament. She is due to hold a meeting of top security officials on Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Tuesday that the British response would be “commensurate but robust”.

“We’re giving Russia until midnight to explain how it came to be that Novichok was used on the streets of Wiltshire,” he said. “We cannot exclude that they have an explanation.”

Russia has requested access to the nerve agent used against Skripal but Britain has denied it access, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Britain’s Russian ambassador met Lavrov’s deputy in Moscow on Tuesday, a spokesman for the British embassy said.

JOINT WESTERN RESPONSE

Britain could call on allies for a coordinated Western response, freeze the assets of Russian business leaders and officials, expel diplomats, launch targeted cyber attacks and cut back participation in events such as the soccer World Cup.

Official figures show that Russia accounted for 4.7 billion pounds ($6.5 billion) of goods and services imported to Britain in 2016, less than 1 percent of its total. Exports were put at 5.3 billion pounds out of a British total of just under 550 billion pounds.

European allies including French President Emmanuel Macron expressed solidarity with Britain. U.S. President Donald Trump has not yet publicly commented, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States had full confidence in the assessment that Russia was responsible.

The European Union pledged to stand by Britain, which is due to leave the bloc in just over a year’s time, though the bloc has struggled to maintain a common front on Russian sanctions.

Huge amounts of Russian money have poured into the British capital since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, causing some to refer to it as “Londongrad”.

James Sherr, a Russia expert at the Chatham House think-tank, told Reuters Britain could hurt Putin and his allies by denying them access to the City of London’s financial services.

“They have milked and taken for granted its services as a hub for their global dealings and investments. They have been accustomed for a long time to regard this country as their playground and we have the means to change that,” he said.

“This regime in Russia is founded on a tight and unprincipled merger at all levels between power and money: if you attack the money, you are also attacking the regime’s power.”

The EU has travel restrictions and asset freezes against 150 people and 38 companies. EU nationals and companies are also banned from buying or selling new bonds or equity in some state-owned Russian banks and major Russian energy companies.

NERVE AGENT

May said Russia had shown a pattern of aggression including the annexation of Crimea and the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

A public inquiry found the killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, one of them a former KGB bodyguard who became a member of the Russian parliament. Both denied responsibility, as did Moscow.

British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said police and the MI5 spy agency would look into allegations of Russian state involvement in 14 other deaths in Britain in recent years.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was imprisoned in 2006 but in 2010 he was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

He had lived modestly in Salisbury since then and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious on Sunday.

A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andreas Rinke in Berlin, and Katya Golubkova, Christian Lowe and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Hundreds urged to wash clothes after UK nerve agent attack

Soldiers wear protective clothing in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Henry Nicholls and Alex Fraser

SALISBURY, England (Reuters) – Hundreds of people who visited the Zizzi restaurant or the Mill pub in the English city of Salisbury were told on Sunday to wash their clothes after traces of nerve agent used to attack a former Russian spy last week were found at both sites.

Public Health England said there was no immediate health risk to anyone who may have been in either the restaurant or the pub, but their was a small chance that any of the agent that had come into contact with clothing or belongings could still be present in minute amounts and contaminate skin.

Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury.

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

People walk past a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

“We have now learned there has been some trace contamination by the nerve agent in both the Mill pub and Zizzi restaurant in Salisbury,” chief medical offer Sally Davies said on Sunday.

She said she was confident that no one who was in the restaurant or the pub on March 4 or 5 had been harmed, but their clothing should be washed and personal items like phones wiped as a precaution against any long-term exposure to any substance.

Skripal and his daughter remained in a “critical but stable condition in intensive care,” the chief executive of the local hospital said at a news conference.

A police officer who initially responded was “conscious and in a serious but stable condition,” she added.

British police have said a nerve agent was used against Skripal and his daughter, but have not made public which one.

SMALL RISK

Public Health England said it had weighed new evidence before issuing its advice on Sunday, and it said the general public had not been at risk in the days since the attack.

“This is about a very, very small risk of repetitive contact for any traces of contamination that people may have taken out,” Public Health England’s deputy medical director Jenny Harries said at the same press conference.

“In risk terms one or two days is not what we are concerned about, what we are worrying about is whether there could be an ongoing risk that could build over the future.”

Cordons were still around the restaurant and the pub on Sunday, and police could not say how long they would remain.

A number of police cars and other vehicles were removed from a local car park by soldiers wearing protective clothing and gas masks on Sunday, a Reuters eyewitness said.

Items from the Zizzi restaurant, including a table, had been removed and destroyed, the BBC said.

Local residents said they were concerned by the warnings about contamination issued to the people who had visited the venues.

“It’s worried a lot of people,” dog walker Phil Burt said. “This town is usually packed on a Sunday, but I think a lot of people are just staying away.”

Many in British media and politics have speculated that Russia could have played a part in the attack on Skripal, but interior minister Amber Rudd said on Saturday it was too early to say who was responsible.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and in 2010 was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

Finance minister Philip Hammond said Britain would respond “appropriately” if a foreign state is found to have been involved in the poisoning.

“This is a police investigation and it will be evidence-led and we must go where the evidence takes us,” Hammond told BBC television on Sunday.

“So we have to allow the police investigation to run its course. But if there were to be an involvement of a foreign state evidenced by this investigation, then obviously that would be very serious indeed and the government would respond appropriately,” he said.

(Reporting by Paul Sandle and William Schomberg; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans)

UK says it will respond robustly to nerve agent attack on Russian ex-spy

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin stands with a gun at a shooting gallery of the new GRU military intelligence headquarters building as he visits it in Moscow November 8, 2006.

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will methodically work out who carried out a nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy and his daughter, then take robust action, interior minister Amber Rudd said on Thursday.

Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital since they were found unconscious on Sunday on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English city of Salisbury.

“Both remain unconscious, and in a critical but stable condition,” Home Secretary Rudd told parliament.

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants' cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTER

Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, looks on inside the defendants’ cage as he attends a hearing at the Moscow military district court, Russia. Kommersant/Yuri Senatorov via REUTERS

British media and some politicians have speculated that the Russian state could be behind the attack – suggestions dismissed by Moscow as knee-jerk, anti-Russian propaganda.

“The use of a nerve agent on UK soil is a brazen and reckless act. This was attempted murder in the most cruel and public way,” Rudd said.

“But if we are to be rigorous in this investigation, we must avoid speculation and allow the police to carry on their investigation.”

Despite her call, several lawmakers pointed the finger at Russia during their questions to Rudd, with some calling for investigations to be re-opened into the deaths of Russian exiles in Britain in recent years.

Rudd rebuffed them, urging people to keep a cool head and saying the focus should remain on the Salisbury incident.

“We will respond in a robust and appropriate manner once we ascertain who was responsible,” she said. “We are committed to do all we can to bring the perpetrators to justice, whoever they are and wherever they may be.”

DOUBLE AGENT

Police said on Wednesday that a nerve agent was used against Skripal and Yulia. A British police officer who was also harmed by the substance was now able to talk to people although he remained in a serious condition, Rudd said.

Scientific tests by government experts have identified the specific nerve agent used, which will help identify the source, but authorities have refused to disclose the details.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest by Russian authorities in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and in 2010 was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.

The attack on him has been likened in Britain to the assassination of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died in London in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

A British public inquiry later said Litvinenko’s murder had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoy, an ex-KGB bodyguard who later became a member of parliament.

Both men denied any responsibility and Russia has refused to extradite them to stand trial.

Rudd was pressed during a BBC radio interview earlier on whether Britain had been too soft on Russia following the Litvinenko murder, sending out a message that such acts could be carried out with impunity.

She denied this and hinted that if Russia turned out to be implicated in the attack on Skripal, action would be taken against it.

“We are absolutely robust about any crimes committed on these streets in the UK. There is nothing soft about the UK’s response to any sort of state activity in this country,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Young, Alistair Smout and Michael Holden; Editing by Stephen Addison)