The prime minister says that it has been concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”
May revealed that experts at Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory, coincidently very close to where the attack happened, have confirmed the Salisbury poisoning involved “highly-specialised” and “military grade” Novichok, first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Updating the Commons earlier today, the prime minister explained that as a result of the nerve agent being found to be military grade Novichok, it is “highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the act against ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, which also left Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in a serious condition and parts of the medieval cathedral city closed off.
She also says the Russia was likely to be responsible for the attack because of Russia’s “history of involvement in state-sponsored attacks of this kind.”
However, the Kremlin has denied involvement, while the Russian embassy accused Britain of playing a “very dangerous game” and warned of “serious long-term consequences.”
Moscow responded, saying Theresa May’s words were “another political information campaign based on a provocation”, and has branded the prime minister’s suggestion that Moscow was “probably” behind the Salisbury poisonings as a “circus show”.
The spokesperson from Moscow also added, cryptically: “Before making up new fairy tales, let the British disclose how the Litvinenko case ended.”
Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London in 2006. It seems that Russia is pointing an accusation back at the UK.
A former Kremlin adviser, Alexander Nekrasoff, has said that the nerve agent is “possessed by about 16 countries in their laboratories”.
“Why do I know this?” he added. “Because that’s how the antidote is developed.”
Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two men accused of assassinating Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006, said Britain’s response to events was suspiciously quick. Evidence, he said, that London was operating according to its own script.
“Any chemist or physicist will tell you that as a minimum you need some kind of serious expertise on a serious expert level to determine whether or not a country is responsible,” he told the Interfax news agency.
“When such statements are made in the course of a few days, this speaks only of irresponsibility and the fact that they haven’t set out to discover the truth.”
Novichok agents may feasibly be created in pesticide and agricultural fertilizer manufacturing plants, as they have an organophosphate core, as do other nerve agents. So far the government have offered no firm evidence of Russia’s involvement.
May has said the decision to blame Russia is based on “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations”.Yet already the government are talking about ‘robust responses’, which is very worrying.
The Washington Post reports: “Former special services agent Mikhail Lyubimov was quoted in Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s most popular newspapers, as suggesting Skripal wouldn’t have been worth the trouble of a hit.
‘Skripal was sent to the West in a swap; that means he’s absolutely uninteresting to us. He’s a small-fry,’ Lyubimov said.”
Skripal was jailed for 13 years by Russia in 2006. In July 2010, he was one of four prisoners released by Moscow in exchange for 10 Russian spies arrested by the FBI as part of a swap. He was later flown to the UK.
On Sunday, Dimtry Kiselev, one of Russia’s most powerful media figures, spoke during his Sunday news programme on state-owned TV channel Rossiya-1, in Moscow. Kiselev suggested a possible connection between the poisonings in Salisbury, which British officials said resulted from exposure to an unspecified nerve agent, and international upcoming World Cup football tournament.
Kiselev suggested the poisoning could be a “special operation” aimed at justifying a boycott of the tournament. I don’t think that is likely, however.
Skripal wasn’t much use to Britain as an exposed ex-spy, but “as someone who’s been poisoned, who is ill, he’s very useful,” Kiselev said.
The programme included an on-the-ground report from Britain. The reporter noted that Salisbury, the town where Skripal was lived and fell sick, is about a 20-minute drive from the Porton Down laboratories where Britain developed chemical and bacteriological agents.
“But in the British press and special services, there is no suspicion” [of any British involvement], said another reporter, Alexander Khabarov.
So Russia has been given an ultimatum. May goes on to say that if Russia does not give a “credible response”, the government will conclude that the attack involved “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.
May also said the UK must stand ready to take much more “extensive measures”, and these would be set out in the Commons on Wednesday should there be no adequate explanation from Russia.
The prime minister will then return to the Commons to outline retaliatory proposals, should there be no adequate explanation.
Here are the key passages from Theresa May’s statement today:
Mr Speaker, this morning I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available.
As is normal, the Council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation.
It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.
This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.
Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s 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.
Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4 March.
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.
This afternoon my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is – and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.
My Rt Hon Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
And he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.
Mr Speaker, this action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.
Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.
During his recent State of the Union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.
While the extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006.
And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvenenko. We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation – and the stifling of due process and the rule of law …
Mr Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.
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 United Kingdom.
And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.
Mr Speaker, this 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.
In his response to May’s statement, Jeremy Corbyn condemned the Salisbury attack, and he included criticism of the Tories for taking money from Russian donors. .
The government could impose unilateral sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses. However, it is unlikely to get support from European partners for tougher EU-wide sanctions. Brexit makes those kinds of negotiations much more difficult, and some EU countries are already trying to soften their approach to Moscow.
The government could also make it more difficult for Russians generally to get visas to the UK. However, this is unlikely as such restrictions might also hit Russian dissidents whom the UK welcomes and wealthy businessmen whose laundered cash the UK tolerates to support London’s property market. Few analysts believe targeting rich Russians with tougher asset-stripping orders would make much difference. They would simply take their money elsewhere.
The government could pass a British version of the 2012 US Magnitsky act, which punishes Russians involved in corruption and human rights violations with asset freezes and travel bans. It is named after a Russian lawyer who died in custody after revealing alleged fraud by state officials. Opposition MPs have been pushing for a Magnitsky amendment to be added to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill now going through Parliament.
Other options include the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK, as happened after the poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service operative Litvinenko in 2006.
There has also been discussion of taking Russian broadcasters such as RT (formerly Russia Today) off the air , and broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it will “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licences” after May speaks on Wednesday.
The UK has already internationalised the matter by asking Russia to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of the Novichok nerve agent programme to an international agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
By framing the poisoning as a possible “unlawful use of force” by Russia against the UK, May has also prompted questions as to whether this could be a matter for NATO, the military alliance of 29 countries. The alliance’s policy of collective defence – under Article 5 – states that an attack on any one ally is seen as an attack on all. It was invoked for the first and only time by the United States after the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Lord Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, told the BBC that such an “unlawful act” warranted the involvement of NATO.
Any action “will be much more effective if there can be a broader, Nato-EU solidarity behind us”, he said. So far, Downing Street has played down suggestions that this is an Article 5 matter, though.
However, the magnitude of the response that may be announced on Wednesday will depend on the scale of international co-operation that the government can secure,
The risk with any of the options considered is the scale of any Russian retaliation, of course.
Before the basic facts of the case have been established, both sides have indulged in an early confrontational exchange. Let’s hope and pray that a diplomatic solution can be reached, rather than any further potentially catastrophic escalation.
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