Russia’s spy chief has claimed the Salisbury nerve agent attack was “staged” by Britain and the US, ahead of an emergency meeting of an international watchdog.
The top body of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will meet on Wednesday morning, at Moscow’s request, to discuss the attempted murder of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last month.
The OPCW’s executive council, made up of countries’ representatives, will hold an extraordinary gathering in The Hague with the Salisbury attack the only item on the agenda.
Russia demanded the behind closed-doors talks after the UK Government accused Moscow of being responsible for use of a military-grade chemical weapon in the Wiltshire city.
The UK Government said Russia was using the meeting to “undermine” the work of the OPCW.
Ahead of the OPCW meeting, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency chief Sergei Naryshkin claimed the current tensions between Moscow and the West mean “it’s possible to speak of a return to the dark times of the Cold War”.
However, Mr Naryshkin suggested not all European countries would continue to follow Britain’s lead in blaming Russia for the Salisbury attack.
Speaking at a security conference in the Russian capital, Mr Naryshkin claimed the Skripals’ poisoning was a “grotesque provocation rudely staged by the British and US intelligence agencies.”
He added: “Some European governments are not following London and Washington blindly but are instead choosing to carefully make sense of what happened.”
Last month, EU leaders agreed there was “no plausible alternative explanation” other than Russian responsibility, which came before the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from European capitals.
However, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has since cast doubt on continuing international solidarity with the UK’s position.
Armin Laschet, one of five deputy chairmen of Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, posted on Twitter on Tuesday: “If one forces nearly all NATO countries into solidarity, shouldn’t one have certain evidence?
“Regardless of what one thinks about Russia, my study of international law taught me a different way to deal with other states.”
His remarks came in response to the head of the laboratory where the substance found on the Skripals was tested, telling Sky News they were not yet able to prove it was made in Russia.
Gary Aitkenhead, chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) at Porton Down, said his team could not yet pinpoint the “precise source” of the nerve agent, but had identified it as “military grade” novichok.
He also confirmed the substance required “extremely sophisticated methods to create, something only in the capabilities of a state actor”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the Sky News interview as he attacked “the speed at which the anti-Russian campaign has been launched”, adding that it “causes bewilderment”.
Downing Street later highlighted how other intelligence sources have also been used, together with the work at Porton Down, to draw the conclusion of Russian responsibility.
Ahead of the OPCW meeting, a Foreign Office spokesman 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.
“Of course, there is 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.
“This Russian initiative is yet again another diversionary tactic, intended to undermine the work of the OPCW in reaching a conclusion.”