Boris Johnson has said the UK is in possession of evidence that Russia has been exploring nerve-agent based assassinations and that the country has been stockpiling deadly chemical weapons in the last decade.
The Foreign Secretary in particular claimed Britain has reason to believe Moscow has been collecting the “military grade” Novichok nerve agent that the UK Government says was deployed in the Salisbury attack.
He made the comments moments after a senior Russian diplomat claimed his country has no stockpile of any nerve agent, and even suggested the source of the chemical used in Salisbury was the UK’s Porton Down military laboratory.
It comes as the war of words escalated over the 4 March incident, which left ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal, his daughter and a British policeman in serious conditions, with UK insiders promising further economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his allies.
Speaking to BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Mr Johnson said: “We actually have evidence within the last ten years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating, stockpiling, Novichok.”
With international chemical weapons experts coming to the UK to begin independent testing of samples from Salisbury, the Foreign Office indicated this line of investigation could form part of a probe into what it claimed is a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
But Russia’s ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov had denied moments earlier on the same programme, that his country had any nerve agents in its military arsenal, saying there are, “no stockpiles whatsoever”.
He also excluded the possibility of any chemical weapons “fleeing Russia after the collapse of the USSR, but added that there are “specialists” who left his country and travelled to the UK.
Mr Chizhov then went on to suggest the nerve agent used in Salisbury may have come from the Porton Down laboratory, which is not far from the English cathedral city – though he admitted he had absolutely no evidence for it.
He told Marr: “When you have a nerve agent or whatever, you check it against certain samples that you retain in your laboratories.
“Porton Down, as we now all know, is the largest military facility in the United Kingdom that has been dealing with chemical weapons research. It’s actually only eight miles from Salisbury.”
Asked directly whether Porton Down was “responsible” for the attack, Mr Chizhov said: “I don’t know. I don’t have any evidence of anything having been used.”
The Foreign Office out out a statement warning against Russian attempts to ”muddy the waters” over Salisbury, meanwhile Mr Johnson confirmed experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will arrive in the UK on Monday to begin testing samples of the nerve agent identified by British scientists.
The team from The Hague will meet with officials from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down and the police to discuss the process for collecting samples, including “environmental” issues.
Samples will then be dispatched to “highly reputable” international laboratories selected by the OPCW for testing with results expected to take a minimum of two weeks.
A statement from the Foreign Office repeated Mr Johnson’s claims about Russia stockpiling Novichok in the last decade, adding: “The start of the investigation by the international chemical weapons watchdog comes as the Foreign Secretary travels to Brussels to brief foreign ministers from across the European Union on the attempted assassinations in Salisbury before meeting with the NATO Secretary General.
“As the Foreign Secretary noted this morning, we have been encouraged by the international support we have received to date. More than 20 countries across 6 continents have expressed their solidarity with us and we will continue to work with our European partners and allies around the world to tackle the threat posed by Russia to our collective security.”