UK: Russia spied on Skripals for five years before nerve-agent attack | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.04.2018
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UK: Russia spied on Skripals for five years before nerve-agent attack

British Prime Minister Theresa May's national security advisor told NATO that a Russian military intelligence agency has been observing the Skripals since 2013. Russia said the spying accusation was a "big surprise."

Sergei Skripal (picture-alliance/Globallookpress)

Sergei Skripal before he was poisoned

Russian intelligence services spied on ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia Skripal in the five years before they were poisoned with a nerve agent likely produced by the Russian state, Britain's National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill said on Friday.

The accusation, which was made in a public letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, came a day after the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed UK findings that the Skripals had been poisoned with a type of military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok.

What the letter stated:

  • Sedwill wrote: "We have information indicating Russian intelligence service interest in the Skripals, dating back at least as far as 2013, when email accounts belonging to Yulia Skripal were targeted by GRU [Russia's foreign military intelligence agency] cyber specialists."
  • Sedwill made the accusation as part of a broader allegation that Russia was most likely behind the attack: "Only Russia has the technical means, operational experience and motive for the attack on the Skripals and that it is highly likely that the Russian state was responsible. There is no plausible alternative."
  • "During the 2000s, Russia commenced a program to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents … Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks under the same program."

Read more: Russian spy poisoning: Yulia Skripal declines Russian embassy's help

What were the reactions?

Russia's ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, told reporters he had not seen the letter, but said the accusation that Russian intelligence had spied on the Skripal for five years was a "big surprise."

"If someone was spying, why were the British services not complaining about that?," he added.

The attack: Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found in a critical condition on a bench in the southern English town of Salisbury on March 4. British scientists said the Skripals had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, which was first developed in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yulia has been released from hospital. Sergei remains in hospital, but health officials say his condition is improving.

Read more: The curious case of Yulia Skripal's recorded phone call

OPCW confirmation: On Thursday, the OPCW said in a report the results of its investigation "confirm the findings of the United Kingdom relating to the identity of the toxic chemical." The organization followed its mandate by not identifying who was responsible for the attack.

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Russia's dismissal: Moscow initially dismissed the OPCW's finding and called on the UK to give it access to the chemical samples. But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Friday: "the OPCW only has confirmed the composition of the chemical agent."

Spat: A diplomatic row erupted after the UK and its allies, including the US and Germany, said it was likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. Russia denies any involvement and has accused the UK of stoking anti-Russian hysteria.

Read more: Sergei Skripal: The former spy poisoned with a nerve agent

Who are the Skripals? Sergei, 66, is a retired Russian intelligence agent who came to the UK as part of a prisoner swap in 2010. Russia sentenced him in 2006 to 13 years in prison on charges of working for British intelligence. Yulia, 33, was visiting her father in Salisbury from Russia when the attack happened.

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