Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Moscow — The head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency said on Wednesday that the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain was a "grotesque provocation" by the British and US security services.

"Even when it comes to the grotesque provocation with the Skripals that was crudely concocted by the British and American security services, a number of European countries are in no rush to unquestioningly follow London and Washington but prefer to look into what has happened in detail," SVR chief Sergey Naryshkin said at a security conference.

He also warned that Moscow and the West must avoid the risk of escalating their current stand-off to the dangerous levels reached at the height of the Cold War.

"It’s important to stop the irresponsible game of raising stakes and to stop the use of force in relations between states, not to bring matters to a new Cuban Missile Crisis," he said, referring to the 1962 stand-off between the Soviet Union and the US that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Naryshkin said that for Washington, "fighting the non-existent so-called Russian threat has become a real fixation" comparable in scale to the Cold War era. "It has reached such proportions and developed such ludicrous characteristics, that it’s time to talk about the return of the grim times of the Cold War." He suggested that the West wants to shut itself off from Russia as it once did from the Soviet Union, saying "seized by fear of changes, the West is ready to put up a new Iron Curtain around itself".

Britain has said it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England. Moscow has angrily denied any involvement.

British authorities say the Skripals were poisoned with the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok. The British defence laboratory analysing the nerve agent said on Tuesday that it could not say whether it came from Russia. Moscow hailed that as a vindication of its repeated denials of involvement.

The Kremlin has demanded an apology from British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government for implicating Russian President Vladimir Putin in the nerve-agent attack. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on a visit to Ankara late on Tuesday that Britain’s "theory will not be confirmed in any case because it is not possible to confirm it". London has rallied EU countries in support of its stance.

"The British foreign secretary who has made accusations against President Putin, [and] the British prime minister will have to somehow look their EU colleagues ... in the eye," Peskov said. "Somehow, they will have to apologise to the Russian side. It will certainly be a long story, the idiocy has gone too far."

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has pointed the finger at Putin himself, saying it was "overwhelmingly likely" that the Kremlin leader ordered the attack.