LONDON - The war of words between Russia and Britain over an ex-spy's poisoning got uglier Wednesday as the U.K. foreign secretary called it vomit-inducing that Russian President Vladimir Putin was rejoicing over hosting the World Cup. Russia shot back that Boris Johnson was "poisoned with venom of malice and hate."
The heated exchange came in the deepening diplomatic crisis over the March 4 poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. Britain maintains Russia used a military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok in the attack, which left the father and daughter in critical condition. Moscow has fiercely denied involvement.
Johnson on Wednesday repeated Britain's position that responsibility for the poisoning leads "back to the Russian state and those at the top." He added that the attack had prompted "a mountain of disgust globally," and that he had been pleasantly surprised "at the strength of the solidarity that there is with the U.K."
Johnson agreed with a Labor lawmaker who likened the World Cup hosted by Russia this summer to Adolf Hitler's use of the 1936 Olympics for political purposes.
"I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right," he said. "I think it's an emetic prospect, frankly, to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event."
The Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said Johnson was "poisoned with venom of malice and hate, unprofessionalism and boorishness," adding that "it's scary to remember that this person represents the political leadership of a nuclear power."
She said on Facebook that Johnson's comments reflected London's efforts to cast Russia as an enemy using the most absurd reasons in order to boycott the World Cup.
"But at what price?" she said. "At the price of provocations, setting nations and people against one another and undermining international peace and stability. Isn't the price too high?"
Zakharova noted that Johnson's comments about the 1936 Olympics and the World Cup were an "unacceptable and unworthy" parallel toward Russia, a "nation that lost millions of lives in fighting Nazism."
Vladimir Yermakov, deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's department for nonproliferation, scoffed at expressions of Western solidarity, saying they were meaningless in the absence of proof.
"Have they fallen under the spell of the Strike Back television series?" Yermakov told a briefing with foreign diplomats, referring to the British-American action TV series featuring a plot involving Novichok.
Yermakov accused Britain of "hiding facts" and warned that key evidence might "disappear." Casting doubt on Britain's credibility, he said experts would agree that "the use of a military-grade nerve agent would lead to numerous fatalities right on the spot, but we have seen quite a different picture in Salisbury."
Two possibilities alleged
"Two versions are possible: Either the British government has failed to ensure protection from such terror attack or have staged it themselves, directly or indirectly," he said.
British officials have previously dismissed such Russian allegations as "nonsense."
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States and Britain were right not to send their ambassadors to the Russian briefing "to hear wild accusations and implausible denials."
"Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack," she declared on Twitter.
Britain and Russia have expelled 23 of each other's diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to the attack, and Britain is seeking to rally allies for new sanctions against Moscow.
Yermakov urged Britain to "come forward and open all the data," and warned that Moscow would not recognize any probe if it didn't see the evidence.
He added that Britain's use of the name Novichok — never used by the agent's Soviet designers — was part of efforts to put the blame on Russia.
He insisted that Russia "has nothing to do with [the poisoning] whatsoever" because it "does not benefit us in any way."
Russia previously claimed it had no motive to kill Skripal, who was convicted of spying for Britain but released in a 2010 spy swap. Moscow has also insisted that it had completed the destruction of its chemical arsenals last year under international oversight.
Variants of Novichok
Meanwhile, a Russian scientist involved in designing Novichok said that lab tests can clearly determine its origin.
Vladimir Uglev told The Bell online news portal that the name Novichok, common in the West, wasn't used by its Soviet designers. He said in an interview posted late Tuesday that numerous variants of such agents were developed by the Soviets from 1972 to 1988.
Uglev said British chemical experts could have created their versions of such agents. He noted that blood samples could show who produced the agent that poisoned the victims.
Another Russian scientist involved in the agent's creation, Leonid Rink, told the state RIA Novosti news agency Tuesday that Britain and others could easily synthesize Novichok after chemical expert Vil Mirzayanov emigrated to the U.S. and revealed its formula.
General Igor Kirillov of the Russian Defense Ministry on Wednesday called the publication of Mirzayanov's book "complicity to terrorism."
Kirillov also accused Western nations of "exploiting all possible methods to discredit Russia." Yermakov hinted that the poisoning "may have been directed from overseas," adding that the U.S. still had a sizable stockpile of chemical weapons.