U.K. Charges 2 Russians In Poison Attack On Former Spy

Sep 5, 2018
Originally published on September 5, 2018 7:14 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

British Prime Minister Theresa May said this morning that two officers with Russian military intelligence known as the GRU flew to England last March and poisoned an ex-Russian spy and his daughter.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.

GREENE: The U.K. has now charged these men with attempted murder. And let's turn now to NPR's London correspondent, Frank Langfitt. Hi there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So the U.K. was always blaming Russia, but this is taking it a lot further...

LANGFITT: Much further.

GREENE: ...Actually singling out two men, right?

LANGFITT: It is. It's very detailed, too. This was so striking what Prime Minister May had to say in Parliament today. She said police tracked these two men's movement to a London hotel room where they found traces of the nerve agent Novichok and then all the way out to the city of Salisbury near the home of this ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, the morning that he was poisoned. And police pieced together the movements looking at over about 11,000 hours of CCTV footage. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, they collapsed on a park bench that afternoon, and by 10 p.m., the men identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, they were on a night flight back to Moscow.

GREENE: Back to Moscow - and presumably they're still in Russia - right? - which might make it pretty tough for the U.K. to actually get them into a British court any time soon or any time.

LANGFITT: Well, I don't think - no, and I think most people here think it's extremely unlikely these men are ever going to see the inside of a British courtroom. The U.K. government isn't asking Russia to extradite the men because Russian law forbids extradition of Russian citizens. Britain has issued a European arrest warrant, so if the men do go to a European country where that's valid, they could be picked up, but, presumably, they know better.

GREENE: So is this less about actual charges and an actual court case and more about the British government just trying to say we're doing something real here?

LANGFITT: There are. I think there are a couple messages. One is U.K. citizens understandably were furious about this, and, well, the government seems to want to show them that they really have investigated the case, and they have identified the men. From a foreign policy perspective, the prime minister seems to want to embarrass Vladimir Putin, try to convince other countries that they should keep him at arm's length. Earlier today, I was talking to a guy named Oliver Bullough. He's a journalist here. He's written a couple of books about Russia. This is the way that he put it.

OLIVER BULLOUGH: They are trying to point out the nature of the Kremlin regime and say, well, look; he's a thug, he's a crook and he's a thief. He sent two men here to attempt to murder an ex-spy but also the ex-spy's daughter, who is by no measure a legitimate target.

GREENE: So any response yet to all this from Moscow?

LANGFITT: There is. You know, Lucian Kim - he's our correspondent in Moscow, and he's been following this today, and he says Russia continues to deny any involvement. And the Russian foreign ministry says that the U.K. publishing these names, which the U.K. thinks probably are false names anyway, even though the men did travel on legitimate passports - and putting out these images - they put some images on the Internet today - basically doesn't tell us anything. That's what the Russian foreign ministry is saying. And they have appealed to British authorities to stop what they call manipulating information. But, you know, these blanket denials don't stand up very well given all the details that Prime Minister May offer today.

GREENE: All right, quite a development in this case. NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.