President Vladimir Putin said the two Russians accused by the United Kingdom of poisoning a former Russian spy in England were civilians, maintaining Moscow's denial of involvement and foreshadowing an alternative narrative of events that led to the largest-ever collective expulsion of Russian diplomats from the West, according to a report from the Dow Jones Newswires made available to EFE Wednesday
The UK government immediately rejected Putin's suggestion that the men weren't Russian military intelligence officers.
Putin said Wednesday that Russia had identified the two men, named by British authorities last week as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, although those are believed to be aliases. He urged the men to come forward and tell their story to media.
"There's nothing special or criminal there," he said at an economic forum in Vladivostok in Russia's Far East.
British authorities last week charged the two men with the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, who has lived in the UK since a 2010 spy exchange with Moscow, and his daughter. British Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was almost certainly authorized at a "senior level" of the Russian state.
Russian officials previously said they hadn't heard of the men, but Putin's comments indicate the Kremlin is preparing to offer an alternative narrative of events. The Kremlin has denied involvement, while state propaganda channels have spread a raft of implausible and often conflicting versions blaming anyone but Russia.
The attack exacerbated tensions between Russia and the UK and its allies, already strained over Moscow's military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and alleged interference in US and European politics.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokesman on Wednesday dismissed Putin's claims, saying the men in question are the prime suspects in the poisoning and British investigators have identified them as officers of the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.
"The government has exposed the role of the GRU, its operatives and its methods," he told reporters.
British prosecutors last week charged the two men with four offenses, including attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, and the use and possession of Novichok. The UK said it wouldn't seek extradition of the men because it is forbidden by the Russian constitution.
UK police presented evidence of how the suspects flew into London in March and traveled to the southern city of Salisbury, where police believe they contaminated Skripal's front door with the nerve agent before returning to London and flying back to Moscow, the Dow Jones report added.
Skripal, a 67-year-old former colonel in Russian military intelligence who was a double agent for the UK, and his daughter were left critically ill, and are now under the protection of British authorities at an undisclosed location. UK officials believe that another woman who died in July, 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, had come into contact with the same nerve agent used in the attack.
The US last month placed new sanctions and Russia and warned of further penalties unless Moscow halted use of chemical and biological weapons, provided assurances that it no longer plans to use them and offered international observers or others the opportunity to verify that it is meeting these criteria.
The first round of sanctions could prevent hundreds of millions of dollars of sophisticated US equipment from reaching Russian state-owned companies and will require the US to halt aid to Russia, except for urgent humanitarian assistance such as food and agricultural products.
The Senate is set to consider separate sanctions that could prove more painful for Russia because of their potential to affect the banking sector. Legislation introduced by a bipartisan group is intended to punish and deter malign activity including election interference and the use of chemical and biological weapons.
By Anatoly Kurmanaev in Vladivostok, Russia, and James Marson in Moscow