Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he hopes a meeting of the global chemical weapons watchdog on April 4 will help to defuse a major diplomatic row that arose over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England.
Britain has accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who were hospitalized in critical condition after being found collapsed on a bench in the southern city of Salisbury on March 4. Moscow denies involvement.
Putin -- seizing on a statement by a British laboratory head who told reporters the "precise source" of the nerve agent had not yet been determined -- accused Britain and other Western countries on April 3 of rushing to blame Moscow without sufficient evidence.
The chief executive of Britain's defense laboratory at Porton Down, Gary Aitkenhead, said in an interview with Sky News earlier on April 3 that scientists "have not verified the precise source" of the weapons-grade Novichok used, but he added that an attack with such a highly toxic chemical weapon was "probably only within the capabilities of a state actor." He also said it was not the laboratory's job to say where the poison was produced.
Putin, speaking at a news conference in Ankara after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 3, said the British official's statement showed the need for an international investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33.
Russia requested a meeting of the executive council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is to discuss the case behind closed doors.
"We want a thorough investigation. We would like to take part in it, and we count on receiving relevant materials as the issue involves citizens of the Russian Federation," Putin said.
"We have raised 20 questions for discussion," he said. "I hope that during this discussion, everything will be clarified."
Putin repeated Russia's claim that the nerve agent could have been produced by some 20 nations using materials that are available on the open market.
Putin asserted that Aitkenhead's statement provided evidence that British accusations of Russian involvement in the poisoning -- which led to the West's expulsion of more than 150 Russian diplomatic staff over the incident -- were unfounded.
"The speed at which the anti-Russian campaign was launched causes bewilderment," said Putin, who responded to the Western expulsions by throwing a similar number of Western diplomatic staff out of Russia.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that, after Aitkenhead's statement, Britain should apologize for what he called "mad accusations" that "have no foundation whatsoever."
"The idiocy has gone too far," Peskov said.
The chief of Russia's foreign intelligence agency (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, claimed at a security conference in Moscow on April 4 that the Skripal case was a "grotesque provocation" staged by U.S. and British security services.
Aitkenhead said in the Sky News interview that London's conclusion that it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the poisonings was made after his lab concluded that Novichok, a nerve agent Moscow developed during the Cold War, was used.
"It's our job to provide the scientific evidence that identifies what the particular nerve agent is," he said. "But it's not our job to say where that was actually manufactured."
He said his Porton Down laboratory "provided the scientific information to the government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions that they have come to."
While the toxic agent "probably" was produced by a "state actor," Aitkenhead said there was "no way" it was made at Porton Down, which is eight kilometers from Salisbury. Russia has charged that the facility could have made the Novichok.
A U.K. government spokesman said on April 3 that London's conclusion that Russia was behind the poisonings was based in part on Moscow's history of investigating ways to use nerve agents in assassinations, its record of state-sponsored assassinations, its stockpile of small quantities of Novichok, and its previous targeting of former Russian intelligence officers.
"It is our assessment that Russia was responsible for this brazen and reckless act and, as the international community agrees, there is no other plausible explanation," the spokesman said.
Yury Filatov, Russia's ambassador to Ireland, said Moscow is demanding that Britain provide "every possible element of evidence" it has on the poisonings at the OPCW meeting on April 4.
If the United Kingdom does not show more evidence, he said, "there are ample grounds to assume that we are dealing with a grand scale provocation organized in London aimed to discredit Russia."
Britain's Foreign Ministry accused Russia of calling the meeting as a "diversionary tactic" to undermine its investigation into the poisonings. British authorities have invited OPCW experts to take chemical samples from Salisbury for analysis.
Meanwhile, Sergei Skripal remained hospitalized in critical condition on April 3, while Yulia Skripal's condition has improved.
Skripal was a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency until he was arrested and charged with spying for Britain. He was released in a 2010 spy swap and moved to Britain.