Suspects in Britain poisoning are innocent civilians, President Putin claims
President Vladimir Putin said overnight that Russian authorities know the identities of the two men accused by Britain of carrying out a nerve agent attack on a former spy, but he added that they are civilians and there is "nothing criminal" about them.
The statement by Putin marked an abrupt shift from Russia's earlier position on the poisoning case that has damaged relations between Moscow and the West. Initially, Russian officials said they had no idea who the men were and questioned the authenticity of some of security-camera photos and video released by Scotland Yard showing them in London and Salisbury, where the poisoning took place.
Britain last week charged two men in absentia, identifying them as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov. Authorities alleged they were agents of Russia's military intelligence agency known as the GRU and accused them of poisoning former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury on March 4.
Britain blamed the Russian government for the attack, an allegation that Moscow has vehemently denied.
Putin did not try to dispute the British evidence, but he insisted the men were innocent.
"We know who these people are, we have found them," Putin said in response to question at panel for an economic conference in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East. "There is nothing special or criminal about it, I can assure you."
Asked by the panel's moderator if the men work for the military, Putin replied that they are "civilians" and called on the men to come forward and speak to the media.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters that Putin never met the suspects in the poisoning and that Russia did not investigate them but merely "checked the reports."
The Skripals' poisoning by the deadly nerve agent Novichok triggered a tense diplomatic showdown. Britain and more than two dozen other countries expelled a total of 150 Russian diplomats, and Russia kicked out a similar number of those countries' envoys.
The attack left the Skripals hospitalized for weeks, and two other area residents became seriously ill months later. One of them, a 44-year-old woman, later died.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was carried out by officers of the GRU and almost certainly approved "at a senior level of the Russian state."
Her spokesman, James Slack, rejected the claim the men were civilians, saying they were GRU officers "who used a devastatingly toxic illegal chemical weapon on the streets of our country."
"We have repeatedly asked Russia to account for what happened in Salisbury in March and they have replied with obfuscation and lies," Slack said. "I have seen nothing to suggest that has changed."
Putin's abrupt shift from earlier official statements on the case fits a pattern by the Russian leader.
When troops in uniforms without insignia first appeared on the streets of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 prior to its annexation, Putin insisted that they were not members of the Russian military, but merely local volunteers. Weeks later, Putin said there were Russian troops present there under a treaty with Ukraine that allowed Russia to leave a naval base in Crimea.
Similarly, Putin initially dismissed accusations of Russian state-sponsored hacking in the U.S. election system, but he later admitted the possibility that it was the work of some "patriotic-minded" Russians, although he denied that any of them had been directed by the Kremlin.
Ever since British authorities made their initial accusations of Russian government involvement in the poisoning, Russian officials and media sought to discredit them, either deriding their statements or offering alternative explanations.
After British authorities released photos and video of the men, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that two of the photos in a London airport had been doctored. She later walked back that statement, expressing frustration that British authorities had not shared the files with their Russian counterparts, leaving Moscow "guessing" about what really happened in Salisbury.
Moscow also questioned the origins of the nerve agent involved in the attack, saying it was not proven that the substance was developed by Russia and arguing that other countries, including Britain, had the capacity. Although Novichok is said to be extremely lethal, the Skripals survived, and Russian authorities even questioned why British officials put down the Skripals' pets.
When charges were brought against Petrov and Boshirov last week, Russian media reports appeared to tacitly accept that they were Russians but rejected the possibility that they were sent by the GRU, saying the operation was too clumsy to have been done by well-trained agents. That argument centered on how they made themselves overly visible to surveillance by taking the train to Salisbury and walking through the city, rather than going by private car.
"There have never been and never will be such stupid people in Russian intelligence," journalist Nikolai Dolgopolov, who has written widely about spies, said on Vesti Nedeli.
Skripal's niece Viktoria, who lives in Russia and often voices pro-Kremlin arguments on Russian television talk shows, told the Interfax news agency Wednesday that she knows "through her own sources" that the men identified as Petrov and Boshirov are "ordinary men" who are "shocked" by the accusations.
She claimed that Petrov was not in Britain around the time of the poisoning but did not elaborate on how she knew that.
The case, with its chilling details, echoes the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent who died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210 at a London hotel. Britain spent years trying in vain to prosecute the prime suspects, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun.
A British inquiry concluded that Litvinenko had been killed at the behest of the Russian state, probably with the president's knowledge.
The Russian government rejected the accusations and was quick to throw its support behind the men. Lugovoi ended up in the Kremlin-friendly Liberal Democrat Party and since 2011 has been a member of the lower house of parliament, enjoying immunity from any prosecution.
TVNZ FC: Neymar dives again, as the international break takes a new twist
Club football may currently be at a standstill thanks to the international break, but the same can't be said for everyone at TVNZ FC.
This week, Jack Tame is joined by the trio of Jack Mabire, Victor Waters and Simon Plumb, looking at the big issues in the world of football.
Following his World Cup theatrics, Neymar is up to his old tricks once again, caught diving in Brazil's latest friendly against the USA.
The boys look at the new UEFA Nations League, looking to put an end to meaningless friendlies once and for all.
And finally, the Wellington Phoenix have been linked to signing one of the world's best midfielders - about 10 years too late.
'You see so many sad things' - Prince William 'took a lot home' after working as first responder
Prince William has confessed he "took a lot home without realising" when he worked as an air ambulance pilot.
The 36-year-old royal worked for England's East Anglian Air Ambulance as a first responder for two years and admits it was tough seeing such "despair and sadness".
Speaking at a mental health event in Bristol yesterday, he said: "I took a lot home without realising it. You see so many sad things every day that you think life is like that.
"You're always dealing with despair and sadness and injury. The attrition builds up and you never really have the opportunity to offload anything if you're not careful."
Meanwhile, William - who has Prince George, five, Princess Charlotte, three, and Prince Louis, four months, with his wife Duchess Catherine - announced in January 2017 that he would be stepping down from the job and said it was a "huge privilege" to work with the East Anglia Air Ambulance.
He said in a statement at the time: "It has been a huge privilege to fly with the East Anglia Air Ambulance. Following on from my time in the military, I have had experiences in this job I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and that will add a valuable perspective to my royal work for decades to come. I would like to thank the people of East Anglia for being so supportive of my role and for letting me get on with the job when they have seen me in the community or at our region's hospitals.
"I would especially like to thank all of my colleagues at EAAA, Babcock and Cambridge Airport for their friendship and support. I have loved being part of a team of professional, talented people that save lives every day. My admiration for our country's medical and emergency services community could not be any stronger."
Vladimir Putin's ex-bodyguard says he'll 'make a good juicy beef steak out of' opposition leader
In an extraordinary public outburst, President Vladimir Putin's former bodyguard and chief of the National Guard overnight challenged opposition leader Alexei Navalny to a duel.
Viktor Zolotov recorded an emotional seven-minute speech, posted on the National Guard's YouTube channel, attacking Navalny for his investigation into large-scale corruption at the National Guard. Zolotov admitted "shortcomings in terms of corruption" in his governmental agency but rejected Navalny's claim that he personally profited from the shady deals.
Navalny, Russia's most popular opposition leader, is currently in jail serving a 30-day sentence for organising an unsanctioned public protest. Last month he published an investigation alleging that at least $29 million had been stolen in procurement contracts for the National Guard.
Navalny rose to prominence thanks to his investigations uncovering official graft and has spearheaded mass anti-government protests across Russia, rattling the Kremlin. Rallies took place on Sunday in all of Russia's 11 time zones, and the National Guard's riot police violently cracked down on the protests in some of the cities.
The 64-year old Zolotov, who rarely makes public appearances, took to YouTube to vent his frustration with the opposition leader. Zolotov said he was insulted by Navalny's allegation and felt compelled "as an officer" to challenge him to a duel:
"I'm simply challenging you to a fight: to a ring, to a tatami, anywhere where I promise I will make a good juicy beef steak of you," Zolotov said, seated at the desk and shaking his fist.
Zolotov served in Putin's security detail for 13 years and is believed to be one of the president's closest allies.
His Tuesday speech is a radical departure from the usual Kremlin policy of avoiding mentioning Navalny's name in public. Over the years Putin has ignored Navalny's investigations and protest rallies, refusing to even call him by his name.
However, Navalny has run into trouble with Russian law enforcement as his prominence has grown. He was convicted on two separate sets of charges and his family members and allies have faced criminal prosecution.
The Kremlin dismissed suggestions that it encouraged Zolotov to make his statement.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that Zolotov did not run his speech by the president and that the Kremlin doesn't view it as a physical threat to Navalny. Peskov called Navalny's investigation "shameless lies" and supported Zolotov's outburst, saying that "sometimes you need to fight shameless libel with all possible means."
While most of Navalny's allies treated Zolotov's statement as a joke, others saw chilling overtures in the former bodyguard's emotional appeal.
"Zolotov's public threats against Navalny should be taken without any irony," said Ilya Yashin, an opposition activist and close friend of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Yashin referred to Zolotov's close ties to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov whom the opposition considers to be behind Nemtsov's 2015 murder: "Because of the Nemtsov case we know how the Chechen bandits react when their friends feel offended."