‘Novichok’ nerve agent developed in Russian laboratories
Premier gives Russia until midnight Tuesday to explain attack
Prime Minister Theresa May publicly accused Russia of a chemical weapon attack on British soil and warned of retaliatory measures that will further strain relations between the West and the Kremlin.
In a dramatic statement to a hushed Parliament, May announced that Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned eight days ago with a “military grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” that was developed by Russia. She gave Vladimir Putin till midnight on Tuesday to rebut.
“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 lawmakers in London on Monday.
Russia wasted little time in dismissing May’s assessment. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called her statement a “circus act.” The onus is on the U.K. to act decisively this time given criticism it responded weakly to the 2006 murder of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday said that the poison clearly came from Russia and called the episode an “egregious act” that would trigger an American response.
“This is a substance that is known to us and does not exist widely,” Tillerson told reporters as he flew back to the U.S. 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 challenge to May is to identify what will hurt Russia. In recent years it has shown little concern for the usual diplomatic condemnations. Options on the table for May include:
- The expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.K.
- 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
- Cutting Russian banks off from the Swift bank payment system, a move that would require international backing
“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.”
Elections Days Away
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.”
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. It is withdrawing from the European Union and, alongside other countries, could be on the brink of a trade war with the U.S. should President Donald Trump push ahead with steel tariffs.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged May to seek the support of those old allies, including the EU and NATO: “This, if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act,” he said.
Late Monday, 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. In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the attack but deflected questions about Russian responsibility.
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. They remain in critical condition. A police officer who arrived early on the scene was also hospitalized, in serious condition.
Hundreds of police, military and security service 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 clean their possessions.
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 to deter future attacks. 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.”
— With assistance by Henry Meyer, Annmarie Hordern, Alexander Nicholson, and Nick Wadhams