Russia highly likely to be behind poisoning of spy, says Theresa May

Theresa May has said it is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, and warned Britain would not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil”.

In a statement to the House of Commons that triggered a furious response from Moscow, the prime minister said the evidence had shown that Skripal had been targeted by a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia”.

Describing the incident as an “indiscriminate and reckless act”, she said that Boris Johnson had summoned the Russian ambassador to Whitehall and demanded an explanation by the end of Tuesday.

Russian officials immediately hit back, with Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign minister, calling the remarks “a provocation” and describing the event as a “circus show in the British parliament”.

Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian member of parliament who stands accused of the 2006 murder of the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, said May’s decision to point the finger at Moscow so quickly was “at a minimum irresponsible”.

Quick guide

What is Novichok?

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.

“Much less is known about the Novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”

The most potent of the Novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

And while the Novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for Novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.

The chemical structures of Novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.

The Novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.

The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the Novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.

Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe

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May addressed MPs after chairing a meeting of the national security council, where senior ministers were told that the nerve agent used was from a group known as Novichok.

“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts 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,” she said.

The prime minister said that left just two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury.

“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.”

She said that Johnson had summoned the Russian ambassador, to account for how the nerve agent had been deployed. The UK government demanded a response by the end of Tuesday, she added.

However, May made clear that she believed there was already “a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” – listing the illegal annexation of Crimea, violating the airspace of European countries, and 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.”

She also spoke of the extrajudicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia – and the murder of Litvinenko.

The government would consider Russia’s response on Wednesday, she 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 United Kingdom,” she said, promising to return to the house with a full range of responsive measures.

“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.”

The tough statement means that a major diplomatic row is now looming between Moscow and London, with expulsions on both sides inevitable. Russia’s hardline ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, may well be sent home.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by saying the whole house condemned the “deeply alarming attack” and that a full account was needed from Russian authorities. But he warned against a full breakdown of communications with Moscow.

“We need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and potentially even more dangerous,” he said.

Corbyn then turned to a political attack on the Conservatives, after reports that the party had accepted donations of more than £820,000 from Russian oligarchs since May took over leadership. He also asked why the government had not accepted a Labour-led amendment to the sanctions and anti-money laundering bill that would pave the way for so-called Magnitsky powers to punish human rights abuses with asset freezes and visa bans.

Andrei Lugovoi said May’s decision to point the finger at Moscow was ‘at a minimum irresponsible’.

Andrei Lugovoi said May’s decision to point the finger at Moscow was ‘at a minimum irresponsible’. Photograph: Misha Japaridze/AP

May responded that her government’s simple approach to Moscow was: “Engage but beware.”

Setting out her previous attack on Russian interference in elections, she said: “There can be no question of business as usual with Russia.”

On the Magnitsky powers she insisted that the UK already was able to take tough action against individuals, but did promise to try to reach agreement over the amendment.

In 2007 Gordon Brown kicked out four Russian diplomats in protest at Vladimir Putin’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two assassins who put polonium into Alexander Litvinenko’s tea. The Russian foreign ministry expelled four British diplomats.

On this occasion, Putin is likely to react badly to May’s ultimatum. The UK’s ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow – deputy ambassador at the time of Litvinenko’s murder – is vulnerable.

Additionally, the Kremlin may take action against the BBC. When relations plummeted over Litvinenko, Moscow closed the St Petersburg office of the British Council and accused its director, Stephen Kinnock – now a Labour MP – of drink driving.

The use of Novichok – a deadly nerve agent developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet Union – will be seen as a brutal calling card. It was inevitable that the poison would be discovered, with a trail leading straight back to Moscow.

The timing of the attack was two weeks before Russia’s presidential election, to be held on Sunday. The calculation may be that the Skripal case galvanises Putin’s conservative base and boosts votes.

The reaction of backbench MPs to the statement was largely supportive on all sides of the house. The Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said that the Salisbury attack was “if not an act of war … certainly a war-like act by the Russian federation”.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who chairs parliament’s home affairs committee, said it was hard to see any alternative to the prime minister’s “very grave conclusion” but asked if any action had been taken to review 14 other cases that she had raised.

A number of backbench MPs criticised Corbyn for failing to speak out more strongly in the face of what they described as a national security threat. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said the prime minister had risen to the occasion, but that colleagues would be disappointed by the Labour leader’s partisan attack. His Conservative colleague, Johnny Mercer, described the opposition response as a “shameful moment”. Others argued that the time for dialogue with Moscow had run out.

In a barbed attack on Corbyn, the Labour MP John Woodcock – a longtime critic of his party leader – welcomed the resilience of May and said the UK would face a national security threat if led by “anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat which Russia poses”.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is planning to accelerate and expand its cyber-offensive capability over the next five years in response to the present crisis with Russia, according to Whitehall sources.

The aim is to increase the UK’s ability to strike back against selected targets inside not only Russia but also other states regarded as hostile such as China, North Korea and Iran.

The MoD is also, in the wake of Salisbury, planning to spend more on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence. The move is an acknowledgement on the part of the MoD that it has paid inadequate attention to the increased danger.

The White House condemned the attack on Skripal and his daughter, and pledged support to its “closest ally” Britain, but repeatedly refused to drawn on who was responsible or even mention by Russia by name.

“We’re been monitoring the situation closely, take it very seriously,” press secretary Sarah Sanders, reading from a prepared statement, told reporters. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families and our support to the UK government. We stand by our closest ally in the special relationship that we have.”

A journalist at the daily briefing pressed: “So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this, then?”

Sanders parried: “Right now, we are standing with our UK ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that and we’re going to continue to work with the UK and we certainly stand with them throughout this process.”


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