President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday the Kremlin had identified the two suspects accused by British police of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal — but dismissed the claims, saying they are “civilians.”
Speaking at an economic conference in Vladivostok, Putin said his officials had tracked down the men after the U.K. police issued images of the suspected assassins at a train station in the U.K. town of Salisbury in March.
“We have found them,” Putin said. “There is nothing special or criminal about it, I can assure you. We’ll see soon.”
When asked if the men were members of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, Putin responded: “They are civilians, of course.”
He even called on the men to make themselves available for interviews. “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,” Putin added.
This is not the first time Putin has attempted to dismiss claims of criminal activity by suspected Kremlin operatives as the actions of civilians.
Putin previously described armed Russian citizens fighting in eastern Ukraine as “Russian patriotic volunteers,” while Russian hackers targeting the U.S. were described as “Russian civilians with patriotic views.”
Last week the Metropolitan police charged the men with the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter Yulia using the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. A modified perfume bottle used to carry the poison was later picked up by Charlie Rowley and given to his partner Dawn Sturgess, who subsequently died from her exposure to the toxic substance.
British police identified the men as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, but said they were likely using aliases.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the assassination attempt was likely cleared at the very highest levels of the Kremlin. "This was not a rogue operation," she told the U.K. parliament.
U.K. authorities have not applied for an extradition warrant given the Russian constitution does not permit extradition of its own nationals. A European arrest warrant will only apply if the two men leave the Russian federation — which Home Secretary Sajid Javid conceded Sunday was unlikely.
London has threatened further sanctions against Russia in retaliation for the attack, and it looks likely the U.S. will be forced to do likewise due to an obscure 1991 law intended to punish foreign governments for the use of chemical weapons against their own nationals.
Cover image: Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, pauses during day two of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)