(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Theresa May publicly accused
Russia of a chemical weapon attack on British soil and warned of
retaliatory measures that will further strain relations between
the West and the Kremlin.
In a dramatic statement to a hushed Parliament, May
announced that Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his
daughter Yulia had been poisoned eight days ago with a “military
grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” that was developed by
Russia. She gave Vladimir Putin till midnight on Tuesday to
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against
our country, or the Russian government lost control of this
potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it
to get into the hands of others,” May told lawmakers in London
Russia wasted little time in dismissing May’s assessment.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called her
statement a “circus act.” The onus is on the U.K. to act
decisively this time given criticism it responded weakly to the
2006 murder of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday said that
the poison clearly came from Russia and called the episode an
“egregious act” that would trigger an American response.
“This is a substance that is known to us and does not exist
widely,” Tillerson told reporters as he flew back to the U.S.
from Africa. “It is only in the hands of a very, very limited
number of parties. And I don’t want to say anything further than
The challenge to May is to identify what will hurt Russia.
In recent years it has shown little concern for the usual
diplomatic condemnations. Options on the table for May include:
* The expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.K.
* Removing the broadcast license of Russia’s English-language
television arm, RT
* Preventing sports officials from attending this year’s soccer
World Cup in Russia
* Seek more EU-wide sanctions
* Cutting Russian banks off from the Swift bank payment system,
a move that would require international backing
“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 U.K.,” May said. “And I will come back
to this House and set out the full range of measures that we
Elections Days Away
May’s declaration comes less than a week before Russians
vote in an election that will almost certainly grant Putin a
fourth term as president. When asked if his country was to blame
for the poisoning, Putin told the BBC: “Get to the bottom of
things there, then we’ll discuss this.”
According to Dan Kaszeta, a former chemical weapons adviser
in the White House Military Office, Novichok agents were
designed by the Soviet Union to evade NATO’s detection
“The USSR then Russia went to great lengths to keep the
programme secret at a point when the USSR had already agreed in
principle to chemical arms control,” he said on Twitter. “Their
existence is a political embarrassment.”
The crisis with Russia comes as Britain is finding itself
cut off from traditional allies. It is withdrawing from the
European Union and, alongside other countries, could be on the
brink of a trade war with the U.S. should President Donald Trump
push ahead with steel tariffs.
Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs
Committee, urged May to seek the support of those old allies,
including the EU and NATO: “This, if not an act of war, was
certainly a warlike act,” he said.
Late Monday, May spoke by phone with French President
Emmanuel Macron to brief him on the situation and her
government’s conclusion about Russia’s responsibility, according
to a statement from her office. Macron condemned the attack and
offered his solidarity. In Washington, White House press
secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned the attack but
deflected questions about Russian responsibility.
The two victims of the attack were found unconscious in
Salisbury, southwest of London after coming into contact with
what police later identified as a nerve agent. They remain in
critical condition. A police officer who arrived early on the
scene was also hospitalized, in serious condition.
Hundreds of police, military and security service personnel
are involved in the investigation and operation to clean up the
city. As many as 500 members of the public in the area may have
been exposed to traces of the nerve agent and were advised to
wash their clothes and clean their possessions.
Members of Parliament said relations between Russia and the
West were in a new “cool war” and urged May to consider
reinforcing the U.K.’s military capabilities to deter future
attacks. May said the Kremlin “seems to be intent on dismantling
the international rules-based order” and must be resisted.
“This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in
a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals,” May
said. “It was an indiscriminate 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.”