Russia called a meeting of the U.N. Security Council Thursday looking to cast doubt on British claims that Moscow was responsible for last month’s nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
The move comes amid accusations that the U.K. overstated its evidence against the Kremlin.
Britain, which cobbled together support from other Western nations after accusing Moscow of the March 4 attack on the ex-Russian spy in Salisbury, faced embarrassment Wednesday following claims that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office exaggerated the strength of the evidence against Russia.
The gaffe-prone Johnson had previously told a German broadcaster the evidence from Britain's top military laboratory, the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, was “absolutely categorical” that the nerve agent originated in Russia.
But the laboratory’s chief executive, Gary Aitkenhead, revealed Tuesday that the evidence was less emphatic, saying that while the substance had been identified as novichok — a class of chemical weapons developed in Russia and the former Soviet Union — it was not clear where it had been manufactured.
“We have not identified the precise source,” he said.
Russia, which has been attempting to frame the attack on the former Russian double agent as the work of British and American intelligence agencies, immediately leapt on the discrepancy in Johnson’s account. On Wednesday, the Russian Embassy in London drew attention via its Twitter account to a deleted tweet by the U.K. Foreign Office. The tweet stated that analysis at Porton Down had made clear the substance was Russian-made.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party added to the criticism, with leader Jeremy Corbyn accusing Johnson of “completely exceeding the information he had been given.” Johnson shot back by accusing Corbyn of “playing Russia’s game.”
The dispute is an unwelcome distraction for the British government as it tries to maintain international pressure on Moscow over the attack — and a gift for the Kremlin in its bid to muddy the waters.
Speaking hours ahead of the Security Council meeting Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated the Kremlin’s claim that the attack was “a pretext, either made up or staged, for the groundless expulsions of diplomats.” On Wednesday, Russia’s spy chief Sergei Naryshkin claimed the attack had been “crudely concocted by U.S. and British security services.”
Lavrov also railed against a decision to reject Russia’s request at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to carry out a joint investigation into the attack with Britain, calling it “a mockery of international law, diplomatic etiquette and elementary decency.” Britain had labelled the request “perverse.”
Britain’s official position remains that it is highly like that Russia ordered the attack. The Foreign Office says that the Porton Down assessment forms only one part of the intelligence picture, and said it had deleted the tweet because it had truncated the information and did not reflect it accurately.
Russian state TV Thursday aired a recording of an unverified phone conversation between Yulia Skripal and her cousin. In the conversation, the 33-year-old victim says: "Everyone's health is fine, there are no irreparable things. I will be discharged soon. Everything is ok."
Cover image: UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attends the Lord Mayor of London's annual 'Easter Banquet' at Mansion House on March 28, 2018 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)