Two Russian spies were thrown out of the Netherlands earlier this year over a plot to hack the Swiss laboratory where samples of Novichok from the Salisbury attack were being analyzed, according to reports Thursday.
The Russians — who are not the same men charged with the March 4 attack in the English town — were arrested in The Hague, and sent back to Russia, the Dutch newspaper NRC and Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger reported.
The newspapers claim the pair were preparing to travel to the Spiez chemicals lab in Switzerland, which was analyzing samples from attack. Sources close to the investigation said the men were found with equipment that could be used to break into the lab’s IT system.
Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service confirmed the reports Friday, saying in a statement: “The Swiss authorities are aware of the case of Russian spies discovered in The Hague and expelled from the same place.”
“The Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) participated actively in this operation together with its Dutch and British partners. The FIS has thus contributed to the prevention of illegal actions against a critical Swiss infrastructure.”
Analysis at the Spiez laboratory later confirmed Britain’s claim that the attack on Sergei Skripal, a Russian former double agent, and his daughter, Yulia, involved the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.
Swiss authorities revealed in June that the lab, which also investigates alleged poison gas attacks in the Syrian conflict, had been targeted by hackers believed to be from a Russian-backed group. The hackers created a fictitious chemical weapons conference, and then sent chemical weapons experts invitations embedded with malware.
On Thursday, the two Russian men charged by British authorities with carrying out the Salisbury attack mentioned they had visited Switzerland during their extensive travels through Europe, when they appeared in a farcical interview with Russian state network RT.
“If memory serves me well, we had just a couple of trips to Switzerland,” said the man identified as Alexander Petrov, who claims to be in the sports nutrition business, but who Britain says is an agent for Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.
“We went to Switzerland on holiday. We did have some business trips there as well, but I can’t really remember when it was.”
Petrov and fellow alleged GRU agent Ruslan Boshirov sparked an uproar with the interview Thursday, in which they claimed to have visited Salisbury two days in a row in March to admire its cathedral.
The British government labeled the interview as “lies and blatant fabrications,” and an “insult to the public’s intelligence.” British police have launched a murder inquiry into the death of a woman who was also exposed to Novichok in a nearby town.
The British government wants to interview the alleged agents, and has vowed to arrest them if they leave Russia again — but has acknowledged this is unlikely.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated Friday that his government was unlikely to give British investigators access to the men, who Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied are Russian agents. The pair appeared on RT a day after Putin encouraged the men to speak out in the media.
“There are mechanisms to provide legal assistance,” said Peskov. “If the British decide to make an application, we will respond strictly according to law.”
Cover image: Emergency workers in protective suits search around John Baker House Sanctuary Supported Living after a major incident was declared when a man and woman were exposed to the Novichok nerve agent on July 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)