Prime Minister Theresa May’s Cabinet met to discuss how to strike back at Russia over the poisoning of a former spy on British soil, ahead of a midnight deadline for the Kremlin to explain the attack.
In a dramatic statement to Parliament, May announced that Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned more than a week ago with a “military grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” developed by Russia, and warned of retaliatory measures.
The premier holds talks with ministers at 9:30 a.m. in London, after which Home Secretary Amber Rudd chairs the Cobra emergency committee on developments in the case.
Russia wasted little time in dismissing May’s assessment. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday rejected the claims as “nonsense” and said his country won’t respond to an ultimatum.
Any reprisals will likely further strain relations between the West and Russia. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the poison clearly came from Russia and called the episode an “egregious act” that would trigger an American response — though the White House itself stopped short of assigning blame, while vowing to stand by its “closest ally” the UK.
“This is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely,” Tillerson told reporters as he flew back to the US from Africa. “It is only in the hands of a very, very limited number of parties. And I don’t want to say anything further than that.”
The onus is on the UK to act decisively given criticism it responded weakly to the 2006 murder of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko. But the challenge is identifying what will hurt Russia, which in recent years has shown little concern for the usual diplomatic condemnations. Options include: The expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK; Removing the broadcast license of Russia’s English-language television arm, RT; Preventing sports officials from attending this year’s soccer World Cup in Russia; Seek more EU-wide sanctions; Try to cut Russian banks off from the Swift bank payment system, a move that would require international backing.
“Either 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,” May said. “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK.”
May spoke by phone with French President Emmanuel Macron to brief him on the situation and her government’s conclusion about Russia’s responsibility, according to a statement from her office. Macron condemned the attack and offered his solidarity.
May’s declaration also comes less than a week before Russians vote in an election that will almost certainly grant Vladimir Putin a fourth term as president. When asked if his country was to blame for the poisoning, Putin told the BBC: “Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this.”
According to Dan Kaszeta, a former chemical weapons adviser in the White House Military Office, Novichok agents were designed by the Soviet Union to evade NATO’s detection capabilities. “The USSR then Russia went to great lengths to keep the programme secret at a point when the USSR had already agreed in principle to chemical arms control,” he said on Twitter. “Their existence is a political embarrassment.” The crisis with Russia comes as Britain is finding itself cut off from traditional allies.