Russian spy attack: PM prepares reprisals as deadline passes
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Theresa May is preparing to chair a meeting of the national security council after the midnight deadline she set Moscow over the spy poisoning case passed.
The prime minister is preparing to set out a range of reprisals against the Russian state, including calls for fresh sanctions, visa bans and crackdowns on Russian money in the UK. She is expected to set out plans to build a coalition of international support – from the European Union, Nato and even the United Nations – to rein in Russia over time.
May will put her proposals to the national security committee on Wednesday before briefing MPs in a statement that could set the course for UK foreign policy for years to come.
Earlier on Tuesday Donald Trump, gave May his full support for her strategy of confronting Russia over the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal, saying he is “with the UK all the way”.
The US president’s backing came in a phone call after he had said that it was conditional on the facts supporting the British prime minister’s case. Downing Street said Trump had agreed that “the Russian government must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used”.
Timeline: the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal
Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.
Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.
A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.
The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.
Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.
A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.
The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.
Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.
Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home – in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.
Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.
Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that a major incident was declared.
May has already received strong support from key European leaders and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body responsible for the control of chemical weapons.
The package of measures May is contemplating came in the face of a warning by Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman, that Britain must not try to scare Moscow, pointing to Vladimir Putin’s recent speech in which he presented a range of new nuclear weapons
The Russian embassy in London made clear that it would not comply with a British demand that it meet a deadline of midnight on Tuesday to set out its knowledge of the state’s role in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. Instead, Russia demanded access to the samples of the nerve agent novichok allegedly used in the attack and claimed May’s ultimatum to Moscow breached international protocols, which allow an accused nation 10 days to respond.
Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, accused the UK of making unfounded accusations and pumping out hysteria.
“We call upon them to abandon the language of ultimatums and threats and return to the legal field of the chemical convention, which allows us to resolve this kind of situation,” he said.
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in the UK, responding to speculation Britain may mount a cyber-strike as part of its response, said: “Statements by a number of MPs, ‘Whitehall sources’ and ‘experts’ regarding a possible ‘deployment’ of ‘offensive cyber-capabilities’ cause serious concern.
“Not only is Russia groundlessly and provocatively accused of the Salisbury incident, but apparently plans are being developed in the UK to strike Russia with cyber-weapons.”
In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, and warned that “actions by the British authorities are openly provocative”.
“Any threats of sanction measures against Russia will not be left without a response,” the ministry said.
Russia said there would be reprisals for any move to close the UK-based Russia Today news channel, a measure that May might ask the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to consider as one of her measures.
“Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they close Russia Today,” said Zakharova.
Poisoned umbrellas and polonium: Russian-linked UK deaths
In one of the most chilling episodes of the cold war, the Bulgarian dissident was poisoned with a specially adapted umbrella on Waterloo Bridge. As he waited for a bus, Markov felt a sharp prick in his leg. The opposition activist, who was an irritant to the communist government of Bulgaria, died three days later. A deadly pellet containing ricin was found in his skin. His unknown assassin is thought to have been from the secret services in Bulgaria.
The fatal poisoning of the former FSB officer sparked an international incident. Litvinenko fell ill after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium. He met his killers in a bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family. Putin denied all involvement and refused to extradite either of the killers.
The exiled Russian banker survived an attempt on his life as he got out of a cab in east London. He was shot four times with a silenced pistol. He had been involved in a bitter dispute with two former business partners.
The businessman collapsed while running near his home in Surrey. Traces of a chemical that can be found in the poisonous plant gelsemium were later found in his stomach. Before his death, Perepilichnyy was helping a specialist investment firm uncover a $230m Russian money-laundering operation, a pre-inquest hearing was told. Hermitage Capital Management claimed that Perepilichnyy could have been deliberately killed for helping it uncover the scam involving Russian officials. He may have eaten a popular Russian dish containing the herb sorrel on the day of his death, which could have been poisoned.
The exiled billionaire was found hanged in an apparent suicide after he had spent more than decade waging a high-profile media battle against his one-time protege Putin. A coroner recorded an open verdict after hearing conflicting expert evidence about the way he died. A pathologist who conducted a postmortem examination on the businessman’s body said he could not rule out murder.
An associate of Berezovsky whom he helped to launder money, he was found impaled on railings after he fell from a fourth-floor flat in central London. A coroner ruled that there was insufficient evidence of suicide. But Young, who was sent to prison in January 2013 for repeatedly refusing to reveal his finances during a divorce row, told his partner he was going to jump out of the window moments before he was found.
Throughout the day the UK worked hard diplomatically in Washington to persuade Trump to set aside his desire for a rapport with Putin, and recognise that Russia was the only country that had the means or the motive to seek to kill Skripal.
In his first response, and before his scheduled phone call with May, Trump offered only a reluctant acceptance of the British case, but did not directly ascribe responsibility to Russia.
“It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact …,” he said. “As soon as we get the facts straight, and we are going to be speaking with the British today – we’re speaking with Theresa May today – and as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
Later, No 10 said that during their phone call “Trump told May that the US was with the UK all the way”.
It is not clear if the UK has definitive evidence that a Russian government agent was responsible for deploying the poison.
It would be a blow to Anglo-US relations if Trump refused to accept the British intelligence assessment, but since his election he has felt under siege over allegations that he colluded with Russia to win the presidency, and he believes former British intelligence officers have been feeding those allegations.
In another potential blow to the UK, Trump dismissed his secretary of state only hours after Rex Tillerson, unaware that his sacking was imminent, issued an unequivocal defence of the UK position, which contrasted with a more ambivalent White House statement issued on Monday.
EU leaders rallied to the UK cause, with the EU parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy de Verhofstadt, calling for a common EU stance at next week’s council of ministers.
“Mrs May has said this is an attack against Britain as a country and I think that a common reaction in the next European council is absolutely needed and counter-measures should be decided by the EU,” he said.
But privately, EU officials admit that European unity on sanctions against Russia over Ukraine has been cracking, and the latest episode will only ensure the current range of sanctions remain.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been keen to use the expected re-election of Putin this weekend as an occasion to reopen talks on the Ukraine peace process. Similarly, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, does not want to close dialogue with Putin.
After a round of international calls drumming up support among key allies the foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “If this was a direct act by the Russian state then it would not simply be a threat to the UK, but a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention, a breach of international law and a threat to those who abide by the rules-based international order as a whole.”