On Monday, October 15, the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, seized on a U.S. news interview with President Trump, making claim about the poisonings in Britain that we judge to be false.
Let’s look at the background: The wide ranging interview on Sunday, October 14, by correspondent Lesley Stahl on the CBS 60 Minutes program turned to President Trump’s relationship with Russia. Stahl pressed Trump on why, “publicly,” he never has “a harsh word for Vladimir Putin.”
Trump countered, saying that unlike his predecessor, he “gave Ukraine offensive weapons and tank killers” to help counter the Moscow-backed war in the country’s east.
Stahl then asked if Putin is involved in “assassinations” or “poisonings.”
Trump replied: “Probably he is, yeah. Probably. I mean, I don’t–”
When Stahl pressed him on the use of the word “probably,” Trump added: “But I rely on them (the Russians), it’s not in our country.”
On Monday, September 16, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov responded to the Trump interview, telling reporters the Kremlin is confident no “well-grounded accusations” can be leveled at President Vladimir Putin in relation to his alleged involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals, the state news agency TASS reported, referring to the March poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.
“US President [Donald Trump] did not come up with any direct accusations [against Putin in the “60 Minutes” interview],” Peskov said. “Moreover, there can be no substantiated accusations against the Russian president.”
While it is true that Trump leveled no direct accusations against Putin, he also conceded it was likely Russia had carried out such attacks. In any case, Trump’s words have no bearing on what accusations can or cannot be leveled at Putin in this context, since the British government made the case against Russia in the poisonings, and President Trump is on the record expressing “full confidence” in the British conclusions.
The Case Against Russia
Putin has expressed disdain for Sergei Skripal, the former Russian military intelligence officer who, along with his daughter, Yulia, was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok on March 4, 2018 in Salisbury, England. While the Skripals ultimately survived, Dawn Sturgess, a woman who later came across a fake perfume bottle that the British say was used to deliver the Novichok, died in July.
Earlier this month, Putin called Skripal “a traitor to his homeland” and “scum,” adding that the poisoning scandal had been “artificially inflated.”
Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has long expressed acrimony towards double agents, saying in 2010 that traitors would “choke on their 30 pieces of silver.”
Russia has dismissed revelations that the two suspects, whom the open-source investigative website Bellingcat identified as military intelligence officers Anatoly Chepiga and Aleksandr Mishkin, were behind the attack on the Skripals.
But the evidence pointing towards Russian state actors’ involvement is quite strong.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed that the substance smeared on the front door of the Skripals’ home is the Russian-developed nerve agent, Novichok.
One week after Britain announced there was sufficient evidence to charge Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, aliases used to carry out the attack, Putin called on the men to “appear before the media to tell their story.”
Shortly thereafter, an interview aired with RT head Margarita Simonyan, in which the suspects claimed they had visited Salisbury to see the city’s cathedral.
But CCTV footage showed the two Russian agents in the area of the Skripals’ home on the day of the attack, located one mile in the opposite direction of the cathedral, which they never visited. The suspects left for Moscow the evening of the attack.
British officials say traces of Novichok were later found in the suspect’s London hotel room.
A report last week from Czech Radio (CR), which cited an unnamed Czech intelligence source, said the suspects had visited Prague in 2014, allegedly while Skripal was there.
According to Neovlivni.cz, when Skripal visited Prague in 2012, the Czech Republic expelled five Russian diplomats “for security reasons.” Following his 2014 visit, three more diplomats were sent home, CR cited the news portal as saying, though CR reports it is not clear whether it was Skripal who exposed the agents.
“It looks like the Russians had a group of people that followed Skripal long before the attempt to assassinate him,” CR quoted one source as saying, as reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said that lacking a credible response from the Russian government, the Skripal poisoning amounted to “an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”
May stated: “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
A joint statement on the attack, signed by British Prime Minister Theresa May, President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, read: “We have full confidence in the British assessment that the two suspects were officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU, and that this operation was almost certainly approved at a senior government level.”
So the full record establishes that Peskov’s claim that no substantiated accusations can be leveled at Putin is false.