Putin bears 'ultimate responsibility' for Salisbury novichok attack, says UK security minister

Ben Wallace says GRU spies 'follow orders' as British and Russian officials prepare to confront each other at UN Security Council 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 06 September 2018 12:08 BST
Salisbury attack: Watch Theresa May's statement to parliament in full after Russian spies charged

Vladimir Putin bears “ultimate responsibility” for the Salisbury novichok attack, the security minister has said as British and Russian officials prepare to confront each other at the UN Security Council.

Ben Wallace confirmed the two suspects identified by the Metropolitan Police were serving members of the GRU military intelligence agency, where Sergei Skripal served as a colonel before passing secrets to MI6.

Asked whether Mr Putin was responsible for their actions, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Ultimately he does, insofar as he is president of the Russian Federation and it is his government that controls, funds and directs the military intelligence - that's the GRU - via his minister of defence.

“The GRU is a military intelligence unit, soldiers are supposed to be disciplined, they will follow orders.”

Mr Wallace said the Russian president, who was himself an intelligence officer in the KGB and FSB, still “takes pride in surrounding himself with serving and former intelligence officers”.

“The GRU is linked to both the senior members of the Russian general staff and the defence minister and, through that, into the Kremlin and the president's office,” he added.

It came after Theresa May told MPs the attempted assassination must have been approved at a “senior level of the Russian state”, adding: “This was not a rogue operation.”

(Metropolitan Police)

The prime minister vowed that Britain would wage an international campaign to disrupt “malign Russian activity” and dismantle spy networks.

Mr May also signalled new sanctions against Russia, with government insiders suggesting key GRU figures could be targeted with travel bans and asset freezes.

Mr Wallace said the UK would use “whatever means within the law” to push back including overt diplomatic expulsions and sanctions, and retaliation “in the covert space”.

The Foreign Office has hauled in the most senior Russian diplomat in the UK to explain his government’s actions, while British officials prepared to take the case to an emergency UN Security Council later on Thursday.

Mr Wallace predicted Russia would use its power of veto as a permanent member of the body to block any response to the Salisbury attack, after denying responsibility and furthering conspiracy theories.

The Russian Embassy in London accused British authorities of being unwilling to engage with them and called on the government to ”give up politicised public accusations“.

Ahead of the UN Security Council meeting, Downing Street said Ms May had already discussed the matter with Donald Trump and was expecting further calls with other leaders.

Australia has said it was in ”lock step“ with the UK on the importance of holding Russia to account over the ”heinous“ attack, although it is not currently a council member.

European Arrest Warrants and Interpol red notices have been issued for the two suspects, who travelled to Britain on Russian passports in the names of Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Police believe they are aliases and are appealing for information from the public, but security services identified them as GRU members who have “travelled extensively” around the world and to the UK previously.

They flew into London from Moscow on 2 March, allegedly carried out reconnaissance in Salisbury the following day and then launched the attack.

Investigators caught the pair on CCTV near Mr Skripal’s house at the time when novichok was spread on his front door, causing him and his daughter to fall critically ill hours later.

They may have used the same counterfeit perfume bottle containing novichok that later poisoned Charlie Rowley and killed Dawn Sturgess.

Police found traces of novichok in the London hotel room used by the two suspects before they left Britain on a Moscow-bound flight on the evening of 4 March.

Prosecutors have charged the two suspects with conspiracy to murder Mr Skripal, attempted murder, using novichok and other offences, but have not sought an extradition warrant from Russia because its constitution forbids handing over criminals to other countries.

The suspects will only be caught if they travel to an allied country and are recognised.

Sir Mark Rowley, the former head of UK counterterror policing, said the situation mirrored the Alexander Litvinenko case and there was only a “small possibility that these people will come to justice”.

Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated using polonium tea in London in 2006
Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated using polonium tea in London in 2006 (Getty)

British investigators identified Andrey Lugovoy as the chief suspect for poisoning the former FSB agent, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after he left a trail of radioactive polonium right up to the plane he boarded back to Russia.

He has never been prosecuted and Russia refused an extradition request from the UK under its constitution.

“There are people in Russia wanted in relation to the Litvinenko case and there’s no sign of them being produced,” Sir Mark said.

“So you wouldn’t expect a rapid resolution here, but loyalties change, regimes change. There’s no reason to give up home and not to expect possibilities in the next decade or beyond to bring people to justice.”

Mr Skripal served in the GRU for more than a decade before passing secrets to MI6 that unmasked undercover Russian spies in Europe.

He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason by espionage in 2006, but freed four years later as part of a high-profile spy-swap and flown to Britain.

It was assumed that Mr Skripal would be given a new identity and secret home, but he lived an apparently quiet life under his real name in Salisbury.

Earlier this year, the national security advisor revealed that Russia had been spying on Sergei and Yulia Skripal for at least five years before the attempted assassination.

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