MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that the two Russians named by Britain as suspects in the spy poisoning case do not work for the military and that there is “nothing criminal” about them.
Britain last week charged two alleged agents of Russia’s military intelligence agency in absentia with the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. Britain blames the Russian government for the March attack, a claim that Moscow has vehemently denied.
“We know who these people are, we have found them,” Putin said at a panel at an economic conference in Vladivostok. “There is nothing special or criminal about it, I can assure you.”
Asked by the panel’s moderator if the men work for the military, Putin replied that they are “civilians” and called on the men to come forward.
“I would like to call on them so that they can hear us today: They should go to some media outlet. I hope they will come forward and tell about themselves.”
Skripal’s niece Viktoria, who lives in Russia and often voices pro-Kremlin arguments on Russian television talk shows, told the Interfax news agency later on Wednesday that she knows “through her own sources” that the men identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are “ordinary men” who are “shocked” by the accusations.
She claimed that Petrov was not in Britain around the time of the poisoning, but did not elaborate on how she obtained that information.
The Skripals’ poisoning by the deadly nerve agent Novichok on March 4 triggered a tense diplomatic show down between Russia and the West. Britain and more than two dozen other countries expelled a total of 150 Russian spies working under diplomatic cover, and Russia kicked out a similar number of those countries’ envoys.
The attack left the Skripals hospitalized for weeks, and two other local residents were seriously sickened months later. One of them, a 44-year-old woman, later died.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was carried out by officers of the GRU intelligence service and almost certainly approved “at a senior level of the Russian state.”