Two suspects named by UK authorities over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter are not criminals, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday.
Putin said Russia had identified the pair — named by the UK’s Crown Prosecution Service as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov — and found no evidence of criminal activities.
“We, of course, looked at what kind of people they are, and we know who they are, we found them,” Putin told an audience at the Eastern Economic Forum in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok. “There is nothing unusual or criminal there, I assure you.”
Putin appeared to suggest they should tell their story publicly. “Let them come out somewhere, to you in the media,” he said, describing the men as “civilians.”
Hours later, state TV channel Russia 24 said its correspondent had been in touch with one of the suspects, Petrov, via phone and released audio in which Petrov said he had no comment yet, but would speak to the media “maybe later, next week, I think.”
Russia 24 reported that Petrov had already said in a previous conversation with a reporter that he did not make any secret visits to London with the goal of poisoning the Skripals, and refused to comment on the accusations against him.
Petrov, according to Russia 24, is an employee of Virion, a pharmaceutical company in the Siberian city of Tomsk that is part of a research and production group called Microgen.
Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found slumped on a park bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.
According to British officials who have been combing CCTV footage in subsequent months, the two Russian nationals were seen arriving at London Gatwick Airport on March 2 before being spotted in Salisbury on March 3 and 4.
Just before midday on March 4, UK police say, the suspects were spotted on CCTV near Skripal’s home. They believe the men went on to spread the Novichok nerve agent on the house’s door handle, although this moment was not captured on CCTV.
Final images show the men traveling from London Heathrow Airport on what is believed to have been a commercial flight in the wake of the attack in the evening of March 4. British officials say they believe their names to be aliases.
The Skripals spent weeks in the hospital. A police officer who found them was also hospitalized. All three have now been discharged.
Dawn Sturgess — who along with her partner Charlie Rowley from Amesbury, near Salisbury, was exposed to the military-grade nerve agent later — died on July 8. Authorities have said they do not believe the couple were deliberately targeted but were exposed after touching a contaminated item left behind by the people who attacked the attack on the Skripals.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said the two suspects are officers of the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU.
“The GRU is a highly disciplined organization with a well-established chain of command, so this was not a rogue operation, it was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state,” she said in a statement to the House of Commons last week.
The UK has said that it has sufficient evidence to charge the men but will not seek extradition of the suspects and instead will apply for a European arrest warrant.