MAY PUTS POISON BLAME ON PUTIN
Sets deadline for Russian response on nerve agent
LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May publicly blamed Russia for poisoning a former spy and his daughter on British soil, as escalating tension between the Kremlin and the West raised fears of a new Cold War.
In a dramatic statement to a hushed House of Commons, May announced that Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been targeted March 4 with a “military grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” that was developed by Russia. She set President Vladimir Putin a deadline of midnight on Tuesday to provide a credible explanation for the attack.
“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 told Parliament in London on Monday.
May will meet with her intelligence and security chiefs on Wednesday morning to assess the Russian response before deciding on retaliatory measures that could range from the expulsion of diplomats to sanctions.
“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 U. K.,” May said. “And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take.”
Russia wasted little time in dismissing May’s assessment. Foreign Ministr y spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called May’s statement a “circus act.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Skripal worked for British intelligence and was poisoned on British soil, and therefore the incident “has nothing to do with Russia, let alone the Russian leadership.”
May’s declaration comes less than a week before Russians vote in an election that will almost certainly grant 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.”
At stake for the U.K. is how much it is willing to alienate Russia, whose rich own property in London. Britain is withdrawing from the EU and the world could be on the brink of a trade war should U.S. President Donald Trump push ahead with steel tariffs.
Hitting back at Putin, who has struck an air of increased defiance with the annexation of Crimea and incursions in Syria, will require careful consideration. Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged May to seek the support of allies, including the EU and NATO: “This, if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act,” he said.
The two victims of the attack were found unconscious in Salisbury, southwest of London, after coming into contact with what police later identified as a nerve agent.
Skripal was a Russian military intelligence officer when he was recruited to spy for Britain in the 1990s. He was jailed in Russia in 2006 for revealing state secrets before being freed in a spy swap in 2010. Skripal and his daughter remain critically injured in hospital. A police officer who arrived early on the scene was also hospitalized in a serious condition.
Hundreds of police, military and security personnel are involved in the investigation and operation to clean up the city. As many as 500 members of the public in the area may have been exposed to traces of the nerve agent and were advised to wash their clothes and possessions.
British officials are working to build international support for a package of retaliatory measures against Putin’s regime.
Members of Parliament said relations between Russia and the West were in a new “cool war” and urged May to consider reinforcing the U. K.’s military capabilities. May said the Kremlin “seems to be intent on dismantling the international rules-based order” and must be resisted.
“This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals,” May said. “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.”
She also said Russia must also “provide full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
May said Britain would be prepared to take “much more extensive measures” than the expulsions and limited sanctions imposed after the death of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium in London in 2006.
James Nixey at think-tank Chatham House said Britain has for years avoided tough decisions about Russia.
“There has been a lot of tough talk over the years and almost no action to protect our national security and integrity,” he said. “We have sent mixed signals to Russia.”