Downing Street has issued a plea for “proportionate” action from Russia to the Salisbury poisoning row after its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that relations with the west are now worse than during the cold war.
Theresa May is visiting Scandinavia next week with the international security threat from Russia expected to be at the top of the agenda.
Her one-day visit to Denmark and Sweden was announced after Lavrov appeared to suggest that UK secret services may have been involved in the 4 March attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury. He said the incident could have been “beneficial” to the British government to distract attention from Brexit.
Speaking in Moscow, Lavrov said there was “a lot of talk about a ‘cold war’, about the situation being worse than it was during the classic cold war, because then there were some rules, and some decency was observed”.
He added: “I believe that our western partners, I mean primarily the United Kingdom, the United States and some countries that blindly follow them, have cast away all decency, they are resorting to open lies, blatant misinformation.”
It came as a former Russian military official Lt-Gen Evgeny Buzhinsky warned that the conflict could even end up as “the last war in the history of mankind”.
In a thinly veiled threat, he said the diplomatic crisis could result in a “very, very bad outcome” and accused the west of “cornering Russia” which, he argued, was a “very dangerous thing”.
The deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, called the poisoning of Sergei Skripal a “provocation arranged by Britain” in order to justify high military spending because “they need a major enemy”.
However, Downing Street in effect called for calm at its weekly briefing for political reporters, simply saying it expected the wider dispute with Russia would not be settled for a long time.
A No 10 spokesman said: “We need to respond in a proportionate way to this aggressive behaviour from Russia and that’s what we’re doing.”
He added: “As the prime minister has made clear, the UK would much rather have in Russia a constructive partner ready to play by the rules. But this attack in Salisbury was part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behaviour, as well as a new and dangerous phase in Russian activity within the continent and beyond. As the prime minister has said, we must face the facts, and the challenge of Russia is one that will endure for years to come.”
Russia is also keeping up the pressure on the UK to provide consular access to Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, now she is recovering in a Salisbury hospital.
Reports from Russia claim that a cousin has contacted the British and Russian authorities to be given permission to go to the UK to be by her bedside.
Lavrov said it was outrageous that the UK was not letting diplomatic staff see Yulia Skripal. The Russian embassy in London claims the UK is in breach of article 36 of the Vienna convention by refusing consular access to a Russian national.
Downing Street raised the possibility that the 33-year-old may have requested that consular access be denied. It said access was based on a number of considerations “including consent from the individual”.
Russia also warned it would not accept any international scientific findings on the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals unless its scientists were involved in testing the nerve agent samples.
Moscow spelt out its conditions for cooperation before an emergency meeting it has convened for Wednesday of the executive of the Organisation for Prevention of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
The OPCW is the internationally recognised body responsible for overseeing the 1997 chemical weapons convention and has been testing samples provided by British scientists from the Skripals.
The first results about the nature of the poison – which the UK believes to be novichok, a nerve agent of Russian origin – are expected in days. Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s permanent representative to the OPCW, complained that Russian scientists have been barred from the tests owing to British objections.
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.
The OPCW is not able to ascribe responsibility for the attack, but identification of the nerve agent as novichok would strengthen the view that Russian state forces were involved. Russia insists it destroyed its entire chemical weapons stock.
If the dispute over the nature of the Salisbury nerve agent cannot be resolved, Russia could withdraw from the OPCW. This would be a severe blow to global efforts to control chemical weapons. Moscow has already challenged OPCW findings about the Syrian government’s responsibility for chemical weapons attacks on its civilians.
May’s meetings with the Swedish and Danish leaders in Stockholm next Monday will also cover trade and the Brexit negotiations. Sweden expelled one Russian diplomat and Denmark two as part of the coordinated international response to the Skripals’ poisoning.