British Charge Russian Intelligence Officers In Connection With Novichok Attacks

British authorities have charged two members of Russian military intelligence in connection with a poisoning attack on British attack.

British authorities have charged two Russian men in connection with both murder and attempted murder tied to a poison previously tied to an effort to kill a former Russian spy that also resulted in the death of a British citizen:

The two assassins sent to southwest England in March to poison a Russian former spy were active officers in Russia’s military intelligence, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said on Wednesday, after prosecutors accused the men of attempted murder, the first criminal charges in a case that has driven a deep wedge between Russia and the West.

Investigators released a cache of evidence in the case, including security camera images that captured the progress of two husky men from an Aeroflot flight to the scene of the crime, near the victim’s home, and from there back to Moscow.

They also released photographs of the delicate perfume bottle that was used to carry a weapons-grade nerve agent, known as Novichok, to the quiet English cathedral city of Salisbury.

British counterterrorism police said at a news conference that they had pored through thousands of hours of security-camera footage, cross-referenced the results with passport data, and on May 2, identified a shabby hotel in East London where the men had stayed. Finally, in a needle-in-a-haystack moment, two swabs taken from the suspects’ hotel were found to contain traces of the nerve agent.

Addressing Parliament a short time later, Mrs. May said that parallel to the police investigation, British intelligence agencies had conducted their own inquiry and concluded that the two men were “officers of the Russian military intelligence service also known as the G.R.U.”

“This was not a rogue operation,” she said. “It was almost certainly also approved outside the G.R.U. at a senior level of the Russian state.”

She said the nerve agent attacks were of a piece with a long string of Russian operations spearheaded by the G.R.U., including the seizure of Crimea, incursions into eastern Ukraine, the downing of a civilian airliner in Ukrainian airspace, and an attempted coup in Montenegro.

The allegation of specific G.R.U. involvement in the use of the nerve agent adds to the heightened tensions between Moscow and the West, which has led to mutual expulsions of hundreds of diplomats and embassy employees, and to sanctions against Russia.

The G.R.U., now known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff, serves as an undercover strike force for the Kremlin in conflicts around the world. Some of its officers were charged in July by United States prosecutors with hacking Democrats’ computer systems during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The British authorities issued domestic and European arrest warrants for the two men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, and released photographs of them. The men traveled on valid Russian passports on those names, the police said, adding that they believed the names were aliases.

“We do understand they have traveled extensively in the past under these aliases,” Neil Basu, Britain’s top counterterrorism police official, said.

The information released on Wednesday made clear that investigators had known of the men’s assumed names, their movements and the contamination of their hotel room for months without saying so publicly. On Wednesday, they appealed for the public’s help to fill in the gaps about what the men had done, and when.

“The names, as well as the photos, published in the media mean nothing to us,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told journalists on Wednesday. “We once again urge the U.K. to switch from public accusations and informational manipulations to practical interaction between law enforcement agencies.”

The Crown Prosecution Service charged the men with the attempted murder of the Russian former intelligence officer, Sergei V. Skripal; of Yulia S. Skripal, his daughter; and of a police officer, Det. Sgt. Nick Bailey, who was sickened while investigating the case. The men were also charged with conspiracy to murder Mr. Skripal; use and possession of the nerve agent; and causing grievous bodily harm.

The charges do not address the poisoning of two Britons — Dawn Sturgess, who died, and Charlie Rowley — though investigators believe the events are linked. Both Ms. Sturgess and Mr. Rowley fell ill months after the attack on the Skripals, when they found the perfume bottle that investigators believe was used to transport the nerve agent.

“The same two men are now the prime suspects in the case of Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley,” Mrs. May said, adding that the same poison was used in both cases and that the two were “victims of the reckless disposal of this agent.”

Prosecutors did not request the extradition of the men from Russia, which does not send its nationals abroad for prosecution. Mr. Basu said that, while he hoped for arrests, “it’s looking very very unlikely that we are going to get to that point.”

Subsequent to the announcement of the charges, the British Security Minister put responsibility for the attack squarely at Vladimir Putin’s feet:

Vladimir Putin bears ”ultimate responsibility” for the Salisbury Novichok attack, the security minister has said.

Ben Wallace said the Russian President’s government “controls, funds and directs” the GRU intelligence service, which the UK government has blamed for the nerve agent poisoning.

In comments that go further than Prime Minister Theresa May, who declined to name Putin in the Commons on Wednesday, he said: “Ultimately, of course he’s responsible – he’s the leader of the state.”

British and Russian officials will come face-to-face on Thursday as the UN Security Council discusses the Salisbury attack hours after Mrs May said that Moscow agents were behind the deadly poisoning.

Police and prosecutors announced on Wednesday they had enough evidence to charge the men - named as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - over the March assassination attempts.

Mrs May told MPs it was carried out by two Russian spies and sanctioned at a “senior level” by the Russian regime.

On Thursday morning, Mr Wallace told BBC Radio 4’s Todayprogramme: ”We know that these two individuals were serving officers in the GRU and we know that this is a GRU operation.”

Asked if Putin bears responsibility for the assassination attempts, he said: “Ultimately he does, insofar as he is the president of the Russian Federation and it is his government that controls, funds and directs the military intelligence – that’s the GRU – via his ministry of defence.

“The GRU is a military intelligence unit. Soldiers are supposed to be disciplined and will follow orders.

“I don’t think anyone can ever say Mr Putin isn’t in control of his state. He takes pride in surrounding himself by serving and former intelligence officers.

“And the GRU is without doubt not rogue. It is led, linked to both the senior members of the Russian general staff and into the defence minister and through that into the Kremlin and the president’s office.

“Ultimately, of course he’s responsible – he’s the leader of the state.”

All of this is rooted, of course, in an event earlier this year in which former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were stricken with an illness of some kind in the English city of Salisbury after returning from a trip abroad. Within days, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of having poisoned Skripal and his daughter and called them out for staging an attempted assassination on British soil. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, also stated openly that it was “likely” that the attack against Skripal was directly ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. Within days after that, May announced retaliatory measures by kicking 23 Russians living in the United Kingdom under diplomatic passports out of the country, hinting that this may not be the only step that the United Kingdom takes. May also convened the North Atlantic Council. Several weeks later, Russia has announced its own retaliation, Several months after these events, two British citizens with no apparent connection to either Skirpal or his daughter were sickened in much the same manner and it was determined that they too had apparently been exposed to the Novichok poison, apparently from the same source that was responsible for Skirpal’s poisoning. One of those two people ultimately ended up dying and the second is apparently still recovering from their injuries. So far at least, the charges against these Russian agents do not appear to include these cases but the men in question could obviously be brought up on additional charges.

Given that Russian military intelligence has now been implicated in this attack, it seems clear the British Security Minister is correct and that responsibility for the attack on Skirpal and the fallout from that attack that apparently injured an innocent British citizen and killed yet another lies at the feet of Vladimir Putin. Regardless of how many “buffers” there may be inside the Russian intelligence apparatus, it is simply inconceivable that something as unprecedented as an attack of this nature on foreign soil could be planned, authorized, and carried out without Putin giving some form of acquiescence to the plan. Although it’s unlikely to lead to such an outcome, an attack like this is at least potentially what used to be considered an act of war against the target country, and as we’ve seen the diplomatic consequences of an act like that at the very least can be quite severe indeed. Therefore, it stands to reason that the President of Russia is the one who gave the final order to commit an unprecedented act of attempted murder on British soil.

It’s also worth noting that the G.R.U. has also been implicated in connection with the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In July, Special Counsel Robert Mueller handed down indictments against twelve Russians, all of whom are identified as being either agents of or otherwise affiliated with the G.R.U., which is of course the primary intelligence agency of the Russian military. The fact that this is the case makes both of these cases even more serious than they already were. And yet we have a President who just doesn’t seem to care.

 

FILED UNDER: Europe, Intelligence, National Security, Russia, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    This thing has worried me from the start: it was too clumsy, too obvious, and the targets were not worth the risk. I suspect this was a message to Paul Manafort that the Russians can reach anyone, anywhere, even in the Anglo-Saxon homeland. Nowhere is safe, and Manafort has kids.

  2. Kathy says:

    So much for Putin the master spy. Who the hell sends assassins on a direct flight with their county’s passport?

    The question now is: how strongly will Trump defend Putin this time?

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:

    Who the hell sends assassins on a direct flight with their county’s passport?

    Someone who’s sending a message. No one has tradecraft that bad.

  4. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    No one who’s read a spy thriller, for sure 🙂

    But it makes sense to muddle the trail. This is like robbing a bank, using your car to get there and get away, and driving straight back home. Trumpian level stuff.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: Hmmmmm…. I wonder if Skripal was a Steele dossier source?

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    OT…Burt Reynolds has died.
    RIP, you fun-loving fool.

  7. PJ says:

    Doesn’t matter if Trump supports Russia, Obama moved the Churchill bust, so he’s way, way worse.

    /S

  8. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Perhaps it was a message to Trump himself.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Just ponder what it means that the Russian government values Manafort’s silence more than their relationship with Britain.

    Disgracing the US and sending us into domestic politics chaos would be a significant victory for Putin. And Trump is already damaged goods.

    I think this is something more than just Manafort. I think this is a message to the world from Putin — “I am untouchable”. Dictatorial virtue signaling.


    Is it crazy conspiracy theory stuff if you think the motives are hidden AND amazingly petty?

  10. JohnSF says:

    If it was deliberate, not a combination of murderousness, arrogance, recklessness and incompetence the target audience might well be in London rather than the USA.

    The message: “This is how violently we can react. Think how we might respond if you interfere with our finances in the City. Walk wide of us.”

    My preference would be: “One bad turn deserves another.”