British Prime Minister Theresa May has opened a new front in the West’s growing conflict with Russia, accusing the country of being behind the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and vowing to take “extensive measures” in retaliation.
On Monday, Ms. May made it clear she’s preparing to rally NATO allies and the United Nations to combat what she called Russia’s disregard for the international “rules-based order.” And she indicated Britain is considering a host of actions against Russia that could include additional sanctions and seizing the assets of Russian oligarchs in London.
The Prime Minister made the comments after saying Russia poisoned Sergei Skripal, a 66-year old former Russian military intelligence officer who worked for MI6 in the 1990s and identified dozens of Russian spies across Europe. Mr. Skripal and his 33-year old daughter, Yulia, fell ill a week ago after a Sunday afternoon outing in Salisbury, England, where he lived. Ms. May told the House of Commons that tests conducted by British investigators have established that the two were exposed to Novichok, a deadly group of poisons the Soviet Union developed in the 1980s. She added that the British government is now demanding that the Russian ambassador to Britain explain how that could have happened, suggesting it was either a deliberate attack or Russia has lost control of the chemical’s supply.
“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,” Ms. May said.
It was Ms. May’s harshest tone yet toward Russia. She’s been accused of pedalling a soft line on Russian interference in the West, and has faced particular criticism over her handling of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian spy who died in London in 2006 after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210. A British inquiry concluded in 2016 that the death was probably orchestrated by Russia’s FSB intelligence service and sanctioned by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ms. May was home secretary at the time, and while she condemned Mr. Litvinenko’s death as a “blatant and unacceptable” breach of international law, she held off on recommending sanctions, citing the need to co-operate with Russia on issues including the fight against terrorism and the Syrian conflict. Britain expelled a few Russian diplomats, dropped some visa plans and froze the assets of the two men directly involved in the death, but did not impose sanctions.
This lack of a strong response came into focus when Mr. Skripal fell ill and questions immediately surfaced about whether Russia was involved. Mr. Skripal had been a valued double agent for MI6 until his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason but was released in 2010 and came to Britain after a spy swap between Russia, the United States and Britain. He has lived quietly in Salisbury ever since, frequently visited by his daughter, who lives in Moscow. Police found them slumped on a bench outside a shopping mall and they were rushed to hospital where they are in critical condition. A police officer is also in serious condition, and health officials have warned anyone who was in a pub and restaurant the Skripals visited that afternoon to clean their clothes, jewellery, glasses and cell phones.
Ms. May has been under increasing pressure to take a firm stand on the Skripal case. Several of her Conservative colleagues are calling for a crackdown on Russian assets in London. Tom Tugendhat, a Tory MP and chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, told the BBC on Monday that “the key is making sure we make Putin realize what we’re doing and make people who support him realize that supporting him isn’t a great idea.”
On Monday, Ms. May said she will wait to hear from the Russian ambassador before announcing new measures on Wednesday. But she indicated tough action was coming as she levelled a blistering attack on Russian “state aggression,” citing the annexation of Crimea, the “sustained campaign of cyber espionage” and record of “state-sponsored assassinations.” She added that while Britain has worked with its allies to secure sanctions against Russia before, “we must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.”
It’s unclear how far Ms. May can go. The United States and European Union have shown little interest in imposing additional sanctions on Russia, and international outrage about the Skripal case has been scant. The only concrete action Britain has mentioned so far is withdrawing British dignitaries from the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. On Monday, Ms. May said the government will consider introducing legislation that would allow assets of corrupt officials to be confiscated.
Ms. May did win some backing from U.S. President Donald Trump. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the Trump administration stood by Britain. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against U.K. citizens on U.K. soil is an outrage,” Ms. Sanders said. However, it’s not certain Mr. Trump will support further Russian sanctions.
The Russian government has denied involvement in the Litvinenko or Skripal cases. On Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Ms. May’s allegations a “circus show in the British Parliament,” while the Russian embassy in London said the British response is dangerous.