This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out at Sergei Skripal, the former Russian intelligence officer whom Britain accuses Moscow of poisoning with a weapons-grade nerve agent in England, calling him a “traitor” and a “scumbag.”
Speaking at an energy forum in Moscow on October 3, Putin called the dispute over the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter “another spy scandal that has been artificially pumped up.”
“I see that some of your colleagues are pushing forward the theory that Skripal is some kind of human rights defender,” Putin told the audience. “He is a spy. A traitor to his homeland. There is such a thing — a traitor to one’s homeland. He is one of them.”
“He is a scumbag. That’s all there is to it,” Putin added.
Britain has accused Russia of poisoning Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who have recovered following weeks of hospitalization after they were found incoherent on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, with a nerve agent called Novichok.
A British woman and her partner also fell ill after coming in contact with the poison later in a town near Salisbury. The woman, Dawn Sturgess, died in July.
British authorities have laid attempted murder and other charges in absentia against two alleged Russian military intelligence officers they say carried out the attack.
Russia denies involvement despite mounting evidence, and the dispute has led to an exchange of diplomatic expulsions and deepened already severe tension between Moscow and the West.
Putin said that what he called “an entire information campaign that has been rolled out” over the Skripal poisoning will eventually pass.
“I hope it ends — and the sooner it ends, the better,” Putin said, adding that international espionage will continue.
“What, were battles between special services born yesterday? Everybody knows that espionage, like prostitution, is one of the most important professions in the world,” said Putin, a longtime Soviet KGB officer who had a stint as head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) before his rise to the presidency.
He also claimed that Skripal, 67, had continued spying after he was released from prison in Russia and sent West in a Cold War-style swap in 2010.
“I have already said that Skripal is a traitor. He was caught and punished. He spent five years in all in prison. We released him,” Putin said. “He left and continued cooperating with some secret services.”
Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence agency known as the GRU, was convicted of treason in 2006 by a Russian court after being accused of spying for Britain.
Putin also repeated Russian calls for U.S. forces to leave Syria when the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is defeated there, saying that when that happens “there will be no explanation” for a foreign military presence in the war-ravaged country.
He said that “we should all strive” for a situation in which “there are no forces of foreign third countries in Syria at all.”
Asked whether Russian forces should also eventually leave, he said that they should if the Syrian government calls for them to do so.
Russia has given President Bashar al-Assad’s government crucial support in the more than seven-year war in Syria and says that while U.S. and Turkish forces have not been invited in by the government, the Russian military has.
Putin expressed hope for an improvement in Russia’s badly strained relations with the United States but as in the past suggested that the fault lies with Washington — something U.S. officials dispute, saying aggressive actions by Moscow have harmed ties.
He said he wanted “the obscurantism about Russia’s supposed interference” in U.S. elections “to end…so that internal political dirty games do not poison Russian-American relations and negatively influence the situation in the world.”