MOSCOW — The men accused by Britain of trying to murder a former Russian spy are not criminals, President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday, reversing his government’s previous claims that the names given to it by London were meaningless.
British prosecutors last week charged in absentia two men they identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov with using a military-grade nerve agent in Britain against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
“We know who they are. We found them. There is nothing criminal about them. They are just ordinary civilians,” Putin told a session at an economic forum in Vladivostok.
He added with a smirk: “I hope they will soon appear and tell their own story.”
Just a few hours later, Petrov spoke to state television, telling the Rossiya 1 channel that he would provide commentary next week.
British Prime Minister Theresa May put the blame for the attack squarely on Russia’s military intelligence service on Sept. 5, adding that the upper echelons of the Russian state also could have been involved.
Britain says the two men flew from Moscow to London in early March, and then traveled to Salisbury in England and attempted to kill the Skripals. Police posted detailed surveillance camera images tracking the two men moving through crowded British transport hubs, allegedly carrying the poison.
At a news briefing Wednesday, May’s spokesman reiterated Britain’s position that Russia has provided no credible explanation for the events in Salisbury and has responded to the incident with “obfuscation and lies.”
“I can see nothing to suggest that has changed,” he said.
Dawn Sturgess, a 44-year-old British national, died in July from exposure to what police say was the same nerve agent that afflicted the Skripals, in a town just north of Salisbury.
The elder Skripal, who was a Russian intelligence agent who switched sides, as well as his daughter, survived the poisoning and now live in an undisclosed location.
Russia has consistently denied any role in either incident, accusing London of creating “nonsense.”
In the hours following Putin’s remarks, Russian media featured several people who alleged that the men have been wrongly accused. Skripal’s niece Viktoria, who lives in Russia, told the Interfax news agency that “the real Alexander Petrov was not in the U.K. at that time.”
Rossiya 1 featured an interview with Alexander Vasiliev, a former KGB officer who said the charged duo were not professionals, as they did not go through a third country on their suspected mission, and were therefore not from Russian intelligence. “They are dressed like a lot of Russian men, but they are definitely not operating officers,” he said.
Britain’s allies have backed it in the case, with the United States and other European countries expelling hundreds of Russian diplomats suspected of being spies.
Following the latest revelations, Canada, France, Germany and the United States endorsed Britain’s assessment that Russian military officers were involved and urged Russia to provide “full disclosure” of its Novichok nerve-agent program.
Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.