Russian-state media outlets and representatives promoted at least 30 “explanations” for the Salisbury nerve agent attack as part of a campaign to shift blame for the attempted assassination, the head of MI5 has said.
In an blistering critique, Andrew Parker accused the Kremlin of attempting to mislead the world through “bare-faced lies”, social media disinformation and ridicule of critics.
In his first public remarks since the poisoning, the Director General of the Security Service delivered an unambiguous assessment of who was responsible.
“Whatever nonsense they conjure up, the case is clear,” he said.
Vladimir Putin’s regime has been the subject of international condemnation since the attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal in March, which saw the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.
The British Government has pointed the finger at Russia but Moscow has repeatedly denied responsibility.
Giving the first public speech outside the UK by a serving head of MI5, Mr Parker told an audience of security chiefs in Berlin that Europe faces “sustained threats and sustained hostile activity from certain states”.
He said: “Let me be clear – by this I don’t just mean spies spying on other spies, spies following each other around at the dead of night – I mean the deliberate, targeted, malign activity intended to undermine our free, open and democratic societies.”
The chief protagonist among “hostile actors” is the Russian government, Mr Parker said, adding: “Instead of becoming a respected, great nation, it risks becoming a more isolated pariah.”
He accused the Kremlin of “flagrant breaches” of international rules – citing the invasion of Crimea, attempts to interfere with democratic elections in the US and France and the unleashing of cyber attacks, as well as the Salisbury episode.
Noting the exploitation of modern technology by Europe’s adversaries, he said: “Age old attempts at covert influence and propaganda have been super charged in online disinformation, which can be churned out at massive scale and pace, and at little cost.
“The aim is to sow doubt by flat denials of the truth, to dilute truth with falsehood, divert attention to fake stories, and do all they can to divide alliances.
“Bare-faced lying seems to be the default mode, coupled with ridicule of critics.”
Mr Parker said the Russian state has developed a “well-practiced doctrine” of blending media manipulation, social media disinformation and distortion, along with new and old forms of espionage, high levels of cyber attacks, military force and “criminal thuggery”.
The Salisbury attack was “swiftly followed by a cynical and distasteful information campaign to sow confusion and doubt”, he told the conference.
“The Russian state’s media outlets and representatives have propagated at least 30 different so-called explanations in their efforts to mislead the world and their own people.”
Mr Parker referenced a media survey which found that two-thirds of social media output at the peak of the Salisbury crisis came from accounts controlled by the Russian government.
He did not single out specific sources but the Russian embassy in the UK has repeatedly issued statements and tweets disputing Britain’s allegations about the attack.
The embassy has accused the British government of destroying evidence and denying access to the investigation, while describing findings that the Novichok chemical had originated in Russia as a “myth”.
A large-scale investigation to identify the would-be assassin or assassins is ongoing.
Mr Skripal remains in hospital, while his daughter Yulia, who was also taken ill, was released to a secure location last month.
Mr Parker condemned the “reckless” attack, saying it put “numerous” lives at risk. Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, had only been saved thanks to “near miraculous” medical treatment, he added.