Mar 12, 2018

Theresa May: "Highly likely" Russia responsible for attack on ex-spy

Photo: Carl Court / Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May updated the House of Commons on the investigation into the nerve agent attack against Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter this afternoon, stating that "the [British] government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal."

What's next: May said that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had summoned Russia's ambassador to provide an explanation for the use on British soil of a nerve agent manufactured by the Russian government — with an acceptable response required by Wednesday:

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.

The backdrop: Skripal was convicted in 2006 of betraying the identities of Russian intelligence agents working undercover in Europe to MI6, Britain’s intelligence service. He had been living in the U.K. since being freed in a U.S.-Russian prisoner swap in 2010. Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious last Sunday in the English town of Salisbury. They remain in critical condition, and a police officer who first responded to them has also been hospitalized with serious injuries.

"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 act 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 details:

  • The police and intelligence investigation issued a "positive identification" that the compound used was a Novichok nerve agent, which May described as "a military grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia."
  • May presented two possible options for the nerve agent's use: either "a direct act by the Russian state against our country" or the "Russian government lost control" and "allowed it to get into the hands of others."
  • If the British government does not receive a response by the Wednesday deadline, May will return to the House of Commons and "set out the full range of measures we will take in response." She noted that the U.K.'s response would be "extensive," going beyond the diplomatic expulsions and diplomatic sanctions following the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.
  • May said that the incident showed “a Kremlin that seems to be intent on dismantling the international rules based order," stating that the United Kingdom "should stand up resolutely in defense of that international order."
  • May notably didn't address a question from MP Chris Bryant about the possibility that the broadcasting license for RT, Russia's state-sponsored news network, be revoked."

Between the lines: Axios' Steve LeVine, author of Putin's Labyrinth, which focuses on the murders of Putin's enemies, says Theresa May will be in a political box if a Russian role is found:

Litvinenko caused a huge international incident and a lasting diplomatic breach. If they die, this will be murder, again, in a major Western country. The Brits could cut off relations, recall their ambassador, and so on — to which Putin would protest, "show us the facts. The West again is hysterical" — but May will be forced to take demonstrably stern action. Against the backdrop of Crimea, one might see her seek an EU-wide response, though given the changing politics on the continent, that could be hard to achieve.

What Russia is saying: Per the AFP, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the situation with reporters earlier today, responding to a question from a British journalist: "Sort things out from your side and then we will discuss this with you."

  • The Russian Foreign Ministry branded May's speech as "a circus show," calling it "another political information campaign based on a provocation," per Sky News.

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