Russia researching nerve agents for assassinations, Boris Johnson claims

Russia has been researching nerve agents for use in targeted assassinations, and has manufactured and stockpiled chemical weapons in breach of international treaties, Boris Johnson claimed yesterday as the stand-off with Moscow continued to deepen.

The Foreign Secretary dismissed Russian claims that the UK’s chemical warfare research facility at Porton Down could have been the source of the nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent in Salisbury as “satirical”.

Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will visit the UK this week to take samples of novichok, the substance used to attack Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33.

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Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Mr Johnson said: “We actually have evidence within the last ten years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purpose of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling novichok.”

Rebutting Russian claims, he added: “It was not the response of a country that really believes it’s innocent, that really wants to engage in getting to the bottom of this matter.”

Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, prompted a strong response when he suggested the poison may have come from the Porton Down laboratory, which is around eight miles from Salisbury.

He told the same programme that Russia had “nothing to do” with the incident, but his comments were rejected as “nonsense” by UK officials.

Sweden and the Czech Republic denied Russian suggestions they may have been the source of the nerve agent.

Meanwhile, SNP figures claimed yesterday that Russian trolls have launched a campaign of cyber attacks on Nicola Sturgeon after the First Minister condemned the country over the poisoning of the former spy.

Warning that online debate over Scotland constitutional future could be hijacked, SNP MEP Alyn Smith told a Scottish Sunday newspaper: “I’ve voiced concerns before about the conduct of discourse in Scotland, but I’m increasingly alarmed that the worst elements of Scottish discourse are not Scottish at all, but orchestrated from elsewhere.

“I do not want to see the Yes movement played by Putin. Some of the abuse that Nicola has had doesn’t look right. In the last couple of days a lot of the stuff doesn’t ring true.”

And the SNP MP Stephen Gethins said: “Having worked in the former Soviet Union, I’m under no pretence as to what Russia is capable of. It’s not something that would surprise me, as that is the way they have targeted human rights activists and journalists.”

Independent inspectors will arrive in the UK today to test the substance used in the attack, but the results will take at least two weeks to process.

Mr Johnson will travel to Brussels to brief foreign ministers from across the EU at a meeting today on the attempted assassinations before holding talks with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

And the National Security Council will meet early next week to discuss Moscow’s tit-for-tat response to the UK’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.

Labour has faced intense criticism for its response to the attack after leaving open the possibility that Russia was being framed. But shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the Salisbury incident is “highly likely” to have been a state execution, and Russian president Vladimir Putin “is responsible” for the attack whether directly or through negligence.

He told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “He is responsible whichever way you look at it; he is responsible and all the evidence points to him.”

He added: “We support exactly what the Prime Minister said and we condemn Russia for this, condemn them. I believe this is a pattern of behaviour we have seen.”

US media reported that Mr Skripal and his daughter may have been exposed to a deadly nerve agent through his car’s ventilation system.

ABC News said UK officials now have a clearer picture of how the attack was carried out and that the Skripals may have been exposed via his BMW’s ventilation system.

Scotland Yard would not comment on the ABC News report but UK counter-terrorism police have renewed their appeal for sightings of Mr Skripal’s burgundy BMW 320D car, registration HD09 WAO, in Salisbury on the morning of Sunday 4 March.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said: “We are learning more about Sergei and Yulia’s movements but we need to be clearer around their exact movements on the morning of the incident.”

ABC also reported that intelligence officials said up to 38 individuals in Salisbury have been identified as having been affected by the nerve agent, but the full impact is still being assessed, and more victims affected by the agent are expected to be identified.

Meanwhile, a Sunday newspaper reported that Yulia Skripal’s boyfriend was a Russian secret service agent. The newspaper also said Ms Skripal had worked in the US Embassy in Moscow.

And an exiled Russian businessman facing charges of embezzling £520,000 told a Scottish paper that he fears for his life after fleeing to the Highlands.

Alexander Shapovalov, who will appear in court next month fighting an extradition bid to serve a ten-year prison sentence, is claiming political asylum and said: “That is why I ran away, to save my life.”

Counter-terrorism officers from the Met launched a murder investigation on Friday into the death of exiled Russian businessman Nikolai Glushkov after a post-mortem examination suggested he had been strangled. Mr Glushkov, a critic of Vladimir Putin, was found dead last Monday.