Russian President Vladimir Putin is “ultimately responsible” for the Salisbury nerve-agent attack, British Security Minister Ben Wallace said Thursday.
Speaking to Sky News a day after the U.K. has revealed the names of the two Russian suspects for the March 4 chemical attack, Wallace argued that an operation at this level must have been authorized by the president himself.
The U.K. and the international chemical weapons watchdog have said a Russian made nerve-agent called Novichok was used in the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33.
“What we know is that these are GRU officers on duty, doing a mission. They weren’t retired officers, they weren’t freelancers,” he said.
“It [GRU] is one of the big two intelligence services in Russia; it answers to the [Russian] Ministry of Defense, it answers to Mr. President Putin,” he added.
Wallace’s remarks came as the first direct accusation against Putin from a high-level government minister.
Russian suspects named
British prosecutors on Wednesday named two Russian nationals as the suspects of the Salisbury nerve-agent attack.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov are wanted for conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of Yulia Skripal and police officer Nick Bailey.
The CPS Counter Terrorism Division “have considered the evidence and have concluded there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and it is clearly in the public interest to charge Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, who are Russian nationals,” said Sue Hemming, CPS director of legal services, in a statement.
Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Neil Basu said it is likely the suspects were traveling under aliases and Petrov and Boshirov are not their real names.
Basu said the suspects arrived in London’s Gatwick Airport from Moscow two days before the suspected attack and then traveled to Salisbury and left London for the Russian capital shortly after poisoning the Skripal’s front door with Novichok nerve-agent.
Also sharing CCTV images from the investigation, Basu said the suspects are believed to be aged around 40.
Sickening and despicable act
Describing the nerve-agent attack as a “sickening and despicable act”, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, the police formally linked the incidents in Salisbury and Amesbury.
She told the lawmakers that police investigation showed the suspects disguised the lethal nerve-agent in a modified perfume bottle to smuggle it into the U.K.
She said the “two individuals named by the police and the CPS are the officers from Russian military intelligence service, also known as GRU”.
May avoided to directly accuse Putin, but said the Salisbury attack “was not a rogue operation”.
“It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state,” she said.
May said, if the two Russian suspects ever leave Russia, the U.K. will try to have them arrested, adding that international arrest warrants have been issued.
She said the actions of the GRU are “a threat to all our allies and all our citizens” and “we must step up our collective efforts against it”.
May underlined that “28 other countries, as well as NATO, joined us in expelling a total of over 150 Russian intelligence officers: the largest collective expulsion ever,” following the Salisbury attack.
Security Minister Wallace signaled further steps to sanction Russia, saying that they will push for further sanctions by the EU but following the departure from the bloc, the U.K. can and will introduce unilateral sanctions.
Salisbury and Amesbury
Sergei Skripal and his daughter were admitted to a hospital after being found unconscious on March 4 in Salisbury. They were both since discharged from the Salisbury District Hospital.
Police officer Nick Bailey, who was among the first to respond to the incident, also received treatment after being poisoned.
Sergei Skripal was a granted refuge in the U.K. following a 2010 spy exchange between the U.S. and Russia. Before the exchange, he had been serving a 13-year prison term for leaking information to the British intelligence.
In another incident, British authorities say involved the same nerve-agent in Amesbury, a woman died and a man fell seriously ill.
Dawn Sturgess, 44, fell ill on June 30 after handling an item contaminated with the nerve agent and was taken to a hospital and her partner, Charlie Rowley, 45, was also exposed to the nerve agent and taken to hospital in a critical condition.
The Metropolitan Police continue a murder investigation into the death of Sturgess.