British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Friday that it was overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself made the decision to use a military-grade nerve toxin to assassinate a former Russian agent on English soil.
“We have nothing against the Russians themselves. There is to be no Russophobia as a result of what is happening,” Johnson told reporters at the Battle of Britain bunker from which World War II fighter operations were controlled.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision – and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision – to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe for the first time since the Second World War,” Johnson said.
Former spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in hospital in critical condition. Skripal was a former double agent who betrayed dozens of spies of Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service.
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement, casting Britain as a post-colonial power unsettled by Brexit, and even suggested London fabricated the attack in an attempt to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.
Soon after Johnson’s comments were reported Friday, the Kremlin said accusations that Putin was involved in the nerve agent attack were shocking, TASS news agency reported.
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“Any reference or mention of our president in this regard is a shocking and unforgivable breach of diplomatic rules of decent behavior,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the agency.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter. May also announced that the U.K. will expel 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning, adding that it was tragic that Putin, who is likely to coast to a fourth term in a Sunday presidential election, had chosen to act in such a way.
Israel issued its first condemnation in a statement Thursday. While the statement criticized the use of a military-grade nerve agent in the poisonening of, it failed to mentioned Russia.
Relations between Britain and Russia have been strained since the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006, a killing which a British inquiry said was probably approved by Putin.