Putin Says Skripal Suspects Are Civilians, Not Criminals

Putin Says Skripal Suspects Are Civilians, Not Criminals


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Wednesday that his country had found the two Russians that Britain accuses of trying to use a rare nerve agent to kill a former Soviet spy, and identified them as civilians who had done nothing criminal. He also said he would like the men, who Britain says are Russian military intelligence officers, to come forward to tell their story.

Mr. Putin’s statement, made at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, was far from an admission of Russia’s involvement in the poisoning of Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, on March 4. But it does amount to an abrupt shift from Russia’s previous position that it had no idea who the two suspects named by Britain were, and that they may have been invented to blacken Russia’s name.

“We of course checked who these people are. We know who they are, we found them,” Mr. Putin said at the economic forum. “They are civilians, of course.”

He said that he would like the two to come forward. “It would be better for everyone,” he said “I can assure you that there is nothing special, nothing criminal there. We will see very soon.”

Mr. Putin’s remarks, clearly intended to project candor and transparency, suggested that the Kremlin had decided to recalibrate its response to a poisoning case that has roiled relations between Moscow and the West.

In another effort to present a less snarling face to the outside world, Mr. Putin also said on Wednesday that Russia and Japan should finally sign a treaty this year to formally end hostilities from World War II. Decades of diplomatic efforts to accomplish that goal have foundered as a result of a dispute over islands that both countries claim. The territory, which Russia calls the southern Kurile Islands and Japan calls the Northern Territories, were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war.

Mr. Putin, who has a talent for shifting rapidly between proud belligerence and butter-wouldn’t-melt-in his-mouth reasonableness, was speaking just a week after the release by the British authorities of detailed forensic evidence relating to the Salisbury poisoning that pointed to involvement by Russia, or at least by two men who arrived in London from Moscow on Russian passports two days before the Skripals were poisoned.

The evidence included claims that British investigators had found traces of the nerve agent used in Salisbury in a London hotel room used by the two suspects, who traveled under the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Britain says the names are probably aliases but nonetheless charged the pair with the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, as well as a police officer who fell ill while investigating the case.

Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament that British intelligence agencies had concluded that the men were “officers of the Russian military intelligence service also known as the G.R.U.

The plot to kill Mr. Skripal, himself a former officer in the G.R.U., “was not a rogue operation” and was “certainly approved outside the G.R.U. at a senior level of the Russian state,” she said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the British accusations by denying any knowledge of the two suspects. “The names, as well as the photos, published in the media mean nothing to us,” Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s spokeswoman said. The ministry accused Britain of fanning a campaign of “anti-Russian hysteria” and, in a statement on what it called the “so-called Skripal case,” scoffed at the attempted murder charges against “two allegedly Russian citizens.”

Mr. Putin has a history of walking back often risibly implausible statements issued by his ministries and press officers, who invariably respond to all accusations against Russia with categorical denials and a fog of wild alternative theories.

After months of Russian officials issuing angry denials about any Russian interference in the 2016 election in the United States, Mr. Putin said last year that “patriotic hackers,” Russian individuals with no links to the state, may indeed have been involved.

In much the same fashion, he retreated from incredible denials that Russian military officers were aiding separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, acknowledging the presence of Russians in that region but saying they were “volunteers.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.



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