MAY PUTS POI­SON BLAME ON PUTIN

Sets dead­line for Rus­sian re­sponse on nerve agent

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - TIM ROSS, ROBERT HUT­TON AND ALEX MO­RALES

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.”

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