Britain has united the U.S. and Western Europe in a growing coalition against Russia over the poisoning of a Russian double agent in England, but Moscow denies suggestions it was involved and warns it will respond to any new sanctions.
British Prime Minister Theresa May launched a diplomatic offensive against Russia on Tuesday, calling a host of world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in a bid to win support for the U.K.’s contention that Russia was behind the poisoning of former military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last week.
British investigators have said the Skripals were exposed to a class of nerve agents made in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Both remain in critical condition in hospital, while a police officer who was also exposed to the nerve agent is in serious but stable condition.
All three leaders offered Ms. May broad support, with Mr. Trump telling the Prime Minister that “the U.S. was with the U.K. all the way” and agreeing “that the Russian government must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used.” Ms. Merkel called on Russia to reveal details of its chemical weapons and agreed with Ms. May that there must be a co-ordinated response to “aggressive Russian behaviour.”
Senior officials at NATO and the European Union also rallied around the U.K., with Guy Verhofstadt, a senior member of the European Parliament, saying the EU needed a co-ordinated response to the “new aggression by the Kremlin on European soil.”
However, none of them came out in support of any specific punishment or sanction against Russia.
As the diplomatic row heightened, there were growing calls in the U.K. for an international boycott of this summer’s soccer World Cup in Russia and a ban on Russian broadcaster RT.
And just as tensions over the Skripal case increased, British counterterrorism officers announced Tuesday that they had launched an investigation into the death of another Russian exile, businessman Nikolai Glushkov, who had been a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Glushkov was found dead in his home in London on Monday. “The death is currently being treated as unexplained,” police said Tuesday, adding there was no evidence to suggest a link to the Skripal poisoning.
Meanwhile, more than 200 police officers continue to piece together the movements of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, to uncover how the two came in contact with the nerve agent. So far police have no suspects. Mr. Skripal, 66, had lived a quiet life in Salisbury since coming to the U.K. in 2010 as part of a spy swap between Russia, Britain and the U.S. He’d been arrested in Moscow in 2004 and jailed for treason after being convicted of spying for MI6 in the 1990s, exposing dozens of Russian spies across Europe in exchange for cash. Ms. Skripal, 33, lived in Moscow but visited her father frequently and had flown to Britain the day before the attack.
Ms. May has given the Russian government until Tuesday at midnight to respond to her claim that Russia was either directly involved in the attack or gave someone access to the deadly chemical. Without an adequate response, she said, Britain will introduce “extensive measures” in retaliation. Those steps are expected to be announced on Wednesday and could include expelling diplomats, freezing assets of Russian oligarchs and pulling British dignitaries from the World Cup. Ms. May has not indicated whether England’s team would skip the World Cup, but several MPs have said a full boycott should be considered.
The country’s broadcast regulator, Ofcom, also said Tuesday that if Moscow is implicated in the poisoning, it will look into whether RT, once known as Russia Today, was “fit and proper” to hold a licence. RT countered by saying its “broadcasting has in no way changed this week from any other week and continues to adhere to all standards.”
The mood in Russia was defiant. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was innocent and challenged Ms. May to provide evidence to back her assertions. He said Russia had asked to be given access to the material used in the Salisbury attack, but Britain refused. “On these absolutely legitimate demands ... we received a gibberish response, which in general can be summarized by saying that we were denied these legitimate requests,” Mr. Lavrov told a news conference hours before Ms. May’s deadline.
Kremlin-controlled media also went on the offensive, drawing comparisons with the now-disproven claims about chemical weapons in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before a joint U.S. and British invasion in 2003. Moscow also made clear that it would push back hard if the U.K. moved to punish RT. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that if Britain sought to ban the broadcaster, “not a single British media outlet will be working in our country.” She also hinted at Russia’s growing military power, including new nuclear capabilities announced by Mr. Putin in his recent state-of-the-nation address. No country should give Russia ultimatums, she said.
Sergey Markov, a political consultant who occasionally advises the Kremlin, told The Globe and Mail that he saw the entire affair as a plot to damage Mr. Putin, who is seeking another six-year term in a March 18 election. “It’s very clear. There is no real investigation, everything is secret, but they immediately blame Russia,” Mr. Markov said in an interview in Moscow. “So Putin was supposedly thinking: ‘Our election is boring, let’s kill somebody?’ It’s a joke.”
Mr. Markov said the attack could have been carried out by Mr. Skripal’s enemies -- including former Russian spies whose identities were blown by Mr. Skripal -- acting without Kremlin knowledge or approval. But he claimed the attack was more likely carried out by Western intelligence services as part of a campaign to demonize Mr. Putin.