May issues ultimatum to Moscow over Salisbury poisoning
Sergei Skripal May issues ultimatum to Moscow over Salisbury poisoning
Prime minister says origin of nerve agent and past record of assassinations make Russian involvement highly likely
Theresa May has given Vladimir Putinâs administration until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a former spy was poisoned in Salisbury, otherwise she will conclude it was an âunlawful use of forceâ by the Russian state against the UK.
After chairing a meeting of the national security council, the prime minister told MPs that it was âhighly likelyâ that Russia was respo nsible for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. She warned that Britain would not tolerate such a âbrazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soilâ.
In a statement to the House of Commons that triggered a furious response from Moscow, the prime minister said the evidence had shown that Skripal had been targeted by a âmilitary-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russiaâ. Describing the incident as an âindiscriminate and reckless actâ, she said that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had summoned the Russian ambassador to Whitehall and demanded an explanation by the end of Tuesday.
Russian officials immediately hit back, with Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign minister, calling the remarks âa provocationâ and describing the event as a âcircus show in the British parliamentâ.
Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian member of parliament who stands accused of the 2006 murder of th e former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, said Mayâs decision to point the finger at Moscow so quickly was âat a minimum irresponsibleâ.
Ministers on the national security council were told that the nerve agent used was fro m a family of substances known as Novichok. âBased on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russiaâs record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,â she said.
The prime minister said that left just two plausible explanations âEither this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.â
May made clear that she believed there was already âa backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggressionâ â" listing the illegal annexation of Crimea, violating European airspace and a âsustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruptionâ, including âmeddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag, among many othersâ. She also spoke of the extrajudicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia and the murder of Litvinenko.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, will chair a meeting of the governmentâs Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall at 11.30am on Tuesday to discuss the latest developments in the investigation.
May said the government would consider Russiaâs response on Wednesday. âShould there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,â she said, promising to return to the house with a full range of retaliatory measures.
âThis attempted murder, using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town, was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.â
The tough statement means that a major diplomatic row is looming between Moscow and London, with expulsions on both sides highly likely. Russiaâs hardline ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, may well be sent home.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by saying the whole house condemned the âdeeply alarming attackâ and that a full account was needed from Russian authorities.
However, he warned against a full breakdown of communications with Moscow. âWe need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and potentially even more dangerous,â he said.
Corbyn then began a political attack on the Conservatives, after reports that the party had accepted donations of more than Â£820,000 from Russian oligarchs since May took over the leadership. He asked why the government had not accepted a Labour-led amendment to the sanctions and anti-money laundering bill that would pave the way for so-called Magnitsky powers to punish human rights abuses with asset freezes and visa bans.
May responded that her governmentâs simple approach to Moscow was: âEngage but beware.â Referring to her previous comments on on Russian interference in elections, she said: âThere can be no question of business as usual with Russia.â
On the Magnitsky powers, she insisted that the UK was already able to take tough action against individuals, but did promise to try to reach agreement over the amendment.
In 2007, Gordon Brown kicked out four Russian diplomats in protest at Vladimir Putinâs refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two assassins who put polonium into Alexander Litvinenkoâs tea. The Russian foreign ministry expelled four British diplomats in response.
On this occasion, Putin is likely to react badly to Mayâs ultimatum. The UKâs ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow â" the deputy ambassador at the time of Litvinenkoâs murder â" is vulnerable.
Additionally, the Kremlin may take action against the BBC. When relations plummeted over Lit vinenko, Moscow closed the St Petersburg office of the British Council and accused its director, Stephen Kinnock â" now a Labour MP â" of drink-driving.
The use of Novichok â" a deadly nerve agent developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet Union â" will be seen as a brutal calling card. It was inevitable that the poison would be discovered, with a trail leading straight back to Moscow.Salisbury nerve agent attack: expert criticises lack of information Read more
The attack came two weeks before Russiaâs presidential election on Sunday. The calculation may be that the Skripal case galvanises Putinâs conservative base and boosts votes.
The reaction of backbench MPs to Mayâs statement was largely supportive on all sides of the house. The Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said the Salisbury attack was âif not an act of war â¦ certainly a warlike act by the Russian federationâ.
Labourâs Yve tte Cooper, who chairs the home affairs committee, said it was hard to see any alternative to the prime ministerâs âvery grave conclusionâ, but asked if any action had been taken to review 14 other cases that she had raised.
A number of backbench MPs criticised Corbyn for failing to speak out more strongly in the face of what they described as a national security threat. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said the prime minister had risen to the occasion, but that colleagues would be disappointed by the Labour leaderâs partisan attack. His Conservative colleague, Johnny Mercer, described the opposition response as a âshameful momentâ. Others argued that the time for dialogue with Moscow had run out.
In a barbed attack on Corbyn, the Labour MP John Woodcock â" a longtime critic of his party leader â" welcomed the resilience of May and said the UK would face a national security threat if led by âanyone who did not understand the gravity of the t hreat which Russia posesâ.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is planning to accelerate and expand its cyber-offensive capability over the next five years in response to the present crisis with Russia, according to Whitehall sources.
The aim is to increase the UKâs ability to strike back against selected targets in Russia and other states regarded as hostile, such as China, North Korea and Iran.
The MoD is also, in the wake of Salisbury, planning to spend more on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence. The move is an acknowledgement that it has paid inadequate attention to the increased danger.
May won strong support for her position from international allies. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said whoever had ordered the attack must face serious consequences.
He said: âWe have full confidence in the UKâs investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack t hat took place in Salisbury last week. There is never a justification for this type of attack â" the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation â" and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behaviour.
âWe agree that those responsible â" both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it â" must face appropriately serious consequences.â
Natoâs secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: âThe United Kingdom has concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. And prime minister Theresa May stated today that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act. The use of any nerve agent is horrendous and completely unacceptable. The UK is a highly valued ally, and this incident is of great concern to Nato. Nato is in touch with the UK authorities on this issue.â
- Sergei Skripal
- Chemical weapons
- Foreign policy
- Theresa May
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