Russia failed at the United Nations security council to prise apart the British diplomatic alliance that accuses Moscow of being responsible for the poison attack last month on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
A Russian call at the UN to require Britain to cooperate with Moscow by staging a joint investigation into the poisoning was rejected by the UK’s key allies on the 15 strong UN security council, including France, US, Poland the Netherlands and Sweden.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is attempting to use any international forum available to discredit the UK case by sowing doubts among Britain’s allies and suggesting ulterior motives for the British claims.
Neither America nor France toned down attacks over Russia’s apparent breach of the chemical weapons convention. “Trivialisation of the use of chemical weapons including in Salisbury would open the door to chemical terrorism,” said François Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN.
But Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, said the UK was trying to delegitimise Russia. “We have told our British colleagues that ‘you’re playing with fire and you’ll be sorry’,” he said.
Nebenzia said a “horrific, unsubstantiated” letter by Theresa May to the UN asserting that Russia was “very likely” to have been behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury had now been flatly contradicted by the head of Porton Down, the UK defence research laboratory.
In the letter sent to the UN secretariat on 13 March, the UK prime ministersaid Russia was behind the attack on the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, but Porton Down’s chief executive, Gary Aitkenhead, this week said its tests of the samples had only identified the poison as a military grade nerve agent, but could not definitively identify it as being of Russian origin.
Nebenzia said the so-called nerve agent novichok had not been developed in Russia: “Novichok is not copyrighted by Russia in spite of the obviously Russian name.” The US and Britain had both developed the nerve agent, he said.
Nebenzia said: “British ministers had not foreseen their hyped-up allegations would boomerang. They did not realise that, once the dust settled, they would be held accountable.”
The British intelligence claims amounted to slander and were drawn from the theatre of the absurd, Nebenzia said.
Characters in Midsomer Murders knew “hundreds of very clever ways of killing someone”, Nebenzia said, but those who sought to kill the Skripals “supposedly chose an extremely toxic chemical substance, the most risky, dangerous method possible” and “didn’t really finish the job”.
Criticising the British intelligence services, he added: “Couldn’t you come up with a better fake story?
Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, dismissed the Russian assault, saying the evidence – including British intelligence material – still showed that Russia was overwhelmingly likely to have been behind the Salisbury attack.
Pierce pointed out that a previous Russian attempt to isolate the UK failed decisively at a meeting of the executive of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Wednesday. A call for Russian scientists to be involved in testing of the samples was defeated by 15 votes to six, although Russia claimed the votes for its position, along with 17 abstentions, showed a majority did not accept the British position.
“Allowing Russian scientists into an investigation when they are they most likely perpetrators of the crime in Salisbury would be like Scotland Yard inviting in Professor Moriarty,” said Pierce.
She said she feared that Moscow was trying to build a narrative for why it will not accept forthcoming OPCW findings on the nature of the nerve agent used in Salisbury. She said that Russia’s call for a UN meeting next week before the OPCW report was ready was obfuscation and a “contempt for international institutions that we have seen from the Russian Federation recently”.
Pierce said the UK police investigation involved studying 5,000 hours of CCTV footage and 1,300 seized items and interviews with 500 witnesses.
Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to the UK, told a press conference in London that there was no guarantee that Russia would accept the OPCW report. He called for greater transparency – including the disclosure of laboratories conducting the tests and full publication of the final report.