Moscow’s call for a joint UK/Russian investigation into the Salisbury poisoning has been dismissed as “perverse” by Britain’s delegation to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The move came as the OPCW’s executive council met in The Hague to discuss the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal at the request of Russia.
Tension between Moscow and London has risen a notch after the head of the Porton Down military research facility said scientists had not verified Russia as the source of the substance.
Vladimir Putin seized on the comments from the chief executive of the Government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Gary Aitkenhead, as he accused the UK of launching an “anti-Russian campaign”.
And Labour’s Diane Abbott suggested the Government had rushed to blame the Russian president.
Russia has flatly denied UK claims that it was to blame for the March 4 attack, with foreign intelligence service director Sergei Naryshkin even claiming it was staged by the UK and US as a “provocation”.
Mr Naryshkin told a global security conference in Moscow: “Even as far as the Skripal case goes – which is a grotesque provocation rudely staged by the British and US intelligence agencies – some European countries are in no hurry to follow London and Washington, preferring to sort the situation out.”
Moscow continues to demand that Britain hands over samples of the substance so it can carry out its own checks.
But the UK OPCW delegation said in a tweet: “Russia’s proposal for a joint UK/Russian investigation into the Salisbury incident is perverse. It is a diversionary tactic, and yet more disinformation designed to evade the questions the Russian authorities must answer.”
And a Foreign Office spokesman said there was “no requirement in the chemical weapons convention for the victim of a chemical weapons attack to engage in a joint investigation with the likely perpetrator”.
The spokesman described Wednesday’s meeting in The Hague as “yet another diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion”.
He said: “Russia has called this meeting to undermine the work of the OPCW which, fully in accordance with the chemical weapons convention, is providing the UK with technical assistance and evaluation through independent analysis of samples from the Salisbury attack.”
But he told Sky News it was not the role of his lab to work out where the agent came from and said the Government’s conclusion that it was highly likely to be Russian was based on “a number of other sources”.
His comments appeared to contradict the answer given by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when asked on German TV on March 20 why the UK believed the source of the nerve agent was Russia.
“The people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical,” Mr Johnson said. “I asked them that myself. I said ‘Are you sure?’ He said ‘There’s no doubt’.”
And on March 22, the Foreign Office issued a tweet saying: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia.”
Ms Abbott said the development raised questions about the Government’s approach, and said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn should now be given credit for demanding more evidence before allocating blame.
“It doesn’t surprise me Porton Down is saying this because the security services were always very cautious in what they said,” the shadow home secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Ms Abbott acknowledged that Prime Minister Theresa May had been “quite careful” in her language, but added: “Boris Johnson apparently going on international media and saying he was 101% certain it was Putin – I don’t understand where he got that information from.”
During a visit to Turkey, Mr Putin called for a thorough investigation into the poisoningy, saying “the speed at which the anti-Russian campaign has been launched causes bewilderment”.
Following Mr Aitkenhead’s comments, a Government spokesman said ministers had always been clear that the identification of the substance as Novichok by the Porton Down experts was “only one part of the intelligence picture” leading to the assessment that Russian state involvement was the only plausible explanation for the attack.
But Russia’s EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, insisted that the nerve agent “could have been manufactured anywhere”.
Russian news agency Tass quoted Mr Chizhov as saying he was “not surprised” by Mr Aitkenhead’s comments, as Novichok “is widely known – its formula is even available on the internet”.