MOSCOW – Two Russians named as prime suspects by Britain in a nervous attack that almost killed a former Soviet spy on Thursday appeared on Russian television to deny any involvement in the attack.
In an interview with RT, a state-funded network formerly known as Russia Today, the men described themselves as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, names that Britain released last week, but were probably aliases. They insisted that they were ordinary tourists who had traveled to the "wonderful" English city to see the cathedral tower and the 14th-century clock.
The two men who told RT that the names were real were similar to the suspects shown in pictures published by British investigators trying to attack Sergej V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4 to unravel.
British prosecutors officially charged Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov last week for attempting to murder the scriptwriter and a police officer who became ill while investigating the case.
Speaking to RT's editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, the men denied being officers of Russian military intelligence, as Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said, or part of a murder plot that went awry. They said they were Sports nutritionists who visited Salisbury to visit the sights and look for new nutritional products.
"Our friends had long suggested that we visit this beautiful city," Petrov said.
They did not explain why the London hotel room they stayed in had traces of "Novichok," the military nerve agent Britain says was used in the attack on Salisbury. Nor did they explain why two sports nutrition specialists travel all the way to Britain on March 2, make two trips to Salisbury on two consecutive days and then fly back on the evening of March 4, just hours after the Skripals attack.
The 25-minute interview, in which the two men refused to provide any personal information, signaled a new and bizarre departure in Russia's official response to an attack that led to a series of expulsions of diplomats and contributed to Russia's relations with Russia strengthen the West to its low point since the end of the Cold War.
Although broadcast on a television broadcaster aimed mainly at foreign audiences, the report on their trip to England seemed to convince the Russians that the British version of the events was part of a smear campaign against Moscow.
A spokeswoman for the British government dismissed the interview as more of the Kremlin's attitude. "The government realizes that these men are officers of the Russian military intelligence service – the G.R.U. – who have used a devastatingly toxic, illegal chemical weapon on the roads of our country."
"We have repeatedly asked Russia to give an account of what happened in Salisbury in March," she added. "Today – just as we have seen everywhere – they have reacted with cover-up and lies."
Even the RT reporter did not seem to be convinced and said, "This interview will leave more questions than answers."
But the interview pounded on a topic that works well in Russia and which is reflected in all the responses of the Kremlin to foreign allegations of Moscow: Russians are victims, not perpetrators.
"When your life is turned upside down, you do not know what to do and where you are going," Mr. Boshirov said. "We are afraid to go out, we fear ourselves, our lives and lives of our loved ones.
"We just want that to be over."
He said he expected an apology from the UK as soon as the "true culprits" were found.
Mr. Petrov said he and Mr. Borishov are in the "fitness industry related to sports nutrition, vitamins, microelements, proteins, gainers, etc.".
"We act as a consultant," he said, adding, "The trend is not to focus on biceps growth, but building a figure, a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet."
The appearance of Mr. Boshirov and Mr. Petrov, who were previously out of contact with the outside world, came after President Vladimir V. Putin had met with the President Statement on Wednesday to relieve men from any criminal activity and prompt them to sign up to explain their story. Russian officials had previously denied knowing anything about the men, and even hinted that the British authorities had invented them to fan "anti-Russian hysteria."
Mr. Boshirov, who conducted much of the talks, said he and Mr. Petrov had no idea that Salisbury was the home of Mr. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer convicted of treason in Russia in 2006 who moved to Britain in 2010 a spy exchange.
British investigators say surveillance camera shots show men wandering far away from the usual tourist attractions and into Mr. Skripal's neighborhood. Mr. Boshirov said it is possible that they may have "passed Mr. Skripal's house, perhaps," but failed to know his location or hear his name "before this nightmare began."
British investigators say that Novichok, a Soviet-developed nerve agent used in the attack, was transported to Salisbury in a vial that looked like a bottle of Nina Ricci's Premier Jour perfume. Mr. Boshirov said it was impossible for him or Mr. Petrov to pass through British customs controls with such a bottle.
"Do not you think it's kind of stupid to wear women's perfume for two heterosexual boys? If you go through customs, they check all your stuff, so if we had something suspicious, they'd have questions," Borishov said. "Why should a man have perfume for women in his luggage?
British investigators say the two men first visited Salisbury as part of a fact-finding mission on March 3 and returned the next day to kill Mr. Skripal as part of what Mrs. May described as a murder operation approved by high-ranking Russian officials ,
Mr. Boshirov and Mr. Petrov, however, said that they had made two trips because of the bad weather, with so much mud on the streets of Salisbury during their first visit, that they decided to return to London and try again the next day. There was snow in Salisbury at that time, but apparently nothing that would cause men with many years of Russian winter experience to flee to their hotel.
Oleg Matsnev contributed to the coverage.