The European Union (EU) recalled its ambassador to Russia as a show of support for the UK in its row with the Kremlin over the poisoning of a former spy, as British diplomats left Moscow on Friday in tit-for-tat expulsions.
EU leaders said in a joint statement they agreed with the UK’s conclusion it is “highly likely” Russia is responsible for the use of a nerve agent against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May said her government views the attack as part of a “pattern of Russian aggression against Europe” as she arrived at an EU summit where she is expected to press for assistance undermining Russian spy networks and ask European leaders to expel Russian diplomats they suspect of being undeclared intelligence operatives.
“Russia staged a brazen and reckless attack against the United Kingdom,” May told reporters when arriving at the summit in Brussels on Thursday.
May last week gave 23 Russian diplomatic staff, identified as undeclared intelligence officers, a week to leave Britain in a statement to the House of Commons. She also said it was “highly likely” the Kremlin was responsible for the use of a “novichok” nerve agent against the Skripals in the English city of Salisbury.
Moscow responded with an expulsion of 23 UK diplomats, who began leaving Russia on March 23. The Kremlin also closed the Russian branch of the British Council cultural center and the British consulate in St Petersburg.
On March 21, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson ratcheted up his rhetoric against the Kremlin by comparing Russia’s World Cup this summer to Germany’s 1936 Olympics, earning a rebuke from the Russian ambassador to the UK on Thursday.
In a press conference, Alexander Yakovenko said Johnson’s comparison was “unacceptable” and “an insult to the Russian people.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin will use the soccer World Cup to bolster Russia’s image to the world, Johnson said, agreeing with another MP’s comparison with the German government’s use of the 1936 Olympics as a propaganda tool. He also said Putin may have targeted the Skripals to send a message ahead of presidential elections, which he won on March 18.
Johnson made the remarks to parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee shortly after a Russian defense minister laid the blame for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal at the door of the British government.
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Pushed on financial penalties for Putin’s allies, Johnson on Wednesday told the select committee that he expected some form of “Magnitsky-style” amendment to be added to pending anti-money laundering legislation.
Johnson said the British National Crime Agency is currently looking at whether new powers, including Unexplained Wealth Orders which allow authorities to seize ill-gotten assets, should be used against powerful Putin allies. However, he emphasized those law enforcement agencies should not be seen to be acting upon political direction.
In her initial statement to parliament, May appeared to refer to the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by calling the nerve agent attack an “unlawful use of force” against the UK, but Johnson on Wednesday said Russian deliberately acted in a way that did not trigger NATO action.
Inspectors from the United Nations-backed chemical weapons control agency are in Britain. UK police told the BBC’s Today radio program they are still tracing the Skripals’ movements. On March 17, they appealed to the public for information regarding Sergei Skripal’s car, and later seized a vehicle (Guardian) belonging to a family friend, that is thought to have brought Yulia Skripal from the airport when she arrived in the UK from Moscow.
Britain points at Putin
The attempted murder of a 66-year-old former military intelligence officer, Skripal, has created a crisis in Anglo-Russian diplomacy which has now drawn in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and specifically France, Germany and the United States.
Speaking on March 18, the same day Putin won another six-year term virtually unchallenged, Johnson told the BBC: “We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination but has also been creating and stockpiling novichok.”
Skripal remains in a critical condition along with his daughter Yulia, 33. Britain has said they were poisoned in the cathedral town of Salisbury using a chemical weapon developed by the former Soviet Union known as “novichok.” Large areas of the town remain cordoned off, a police officer who went to the Skripal’s aid is still in hospital and the graves of Skripals wife and of his son who died relatively young are being investigated by a forensics team (Guardian).
The strike on Skripal echoes the 2006 murder of former KGB secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko using a rare radioactive isotope polonium 210. Radiation was spread across London and even the aircraft used to carry the material from Moscow twelve years ago. Litvinenko was also an associate of Berezovsky and a British inquiry said it was almost certain that Putin ordered that attack. British authorities have opened a new inquiry into a series of suspicious deaths of Russian émigrés and their associates exposed by BuzzFeed News.
Thousands of Russians have moved to or invested in London since the fall of the Soviet Union, taking advantage of a no-questions-asked attitude to real-estate investment. But also drawn by the rule of law, relative safety and a bolthole four hours flight from Moscow. Some are oligarchs, others live less glittering lives.
In other developments:
- Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who found the Skripals and was hospitalized with them due to his exposure to novichok, was released from hospital on March 22. Vladimir Uglev, one of the scientists who developed novichok, told Russian outlet The Bell that he is certain the Skripals will die if taken off life support.
- In an interview with the Guardian, the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky said will not add to his security detail in London because he believes that if the Russian president wants him dead “no amount of security measures can prevent that.”
- In a separate development but in line with at least a dozen earlier suspicious deaths of Russian exiles in Britain, anti-terrorism police in London said last week they were treating the death of a former director of Russian airline Aeroflot as murder. Nikolai Glushov had been close to Boris Berezovsky, who believed he had himself engineered Putin’s rise only to fall out with the president and die in an alleged suicide in Britain.
- An exiled Russian scientist who first exposed the existence of the program said only Russia had perfected the lifecycle of the extremely dangerous substance from manufacturer to storage and delivery, countering various assertions from some who have asserted other state involvement or the possibility that the weapon could have been developed by a criminal gang. “Russia is the country that invented it, has the experience, turned it into a weapon. This is the country that has fully mastered the cycle,” Vil Mirzayanov, who defected to the United States, told the BBC. Yet he also told the AFP that the only other possibility would be that someone used the formulas written in his book State Secrets to make the substance.
- Skripal and his daughter may have been contaminated by the nerve agent being blown through the ventilation system of their car, ABC News in the United States reported, quoting intelligence sources. ABC said 38 people were now known to have been affected, apparently including the Skripals and a police officer. Police in the UK have asked for witnesses who may have seen the BMW.
- Police seized a car belonging to a family friend, according to the Guardian, thought to have brought Yulia Skripal from the airport when she arrived in the UK from Moscow. A police chief told BBC radio the investigation, currently occupying 250 counter-terrorism investigators, is currently focused on tracing the Skripals’ movements before they were found unconscious.
- Britain said it has invited the global chemical weapons control agency to test samples of what authorities believed was used to attack Skripal. The origin of the nerve agent “novichok” has become a domestic political contention (The Guardian) between the Conservative government and the Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and even within his party. Russia has also attempted to sow doubt, spreading the idea it could have come from the Czech Republic or even Britain itself.See related stories on WikiTribune and by all means, add your own or say what’s missing:
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- Who is Sergei Skripal, target of the nerve agent attack in Britain
- Nerve agent attack would be new chapter in Kremlin playbook
- What is novichok, the nerve agent blamed for British attack?
- Britain could weaponize London’s “safe haven” against Putin
- Russia changes the rules of warfare, perfecting “hybrid war”
- Voices of Russians in ‘Londongrad’ speak of fear and propaganda
- New oligarch list makes life harder for Russia’s richest
Earlier reporting and background
The Skripal affair blew up days before presidential elections in Russia on Sunday. Moscow’s Foreign Ministry said (Washington Post) British Prime Minister Theresa May was “aiming to posture as a strong leader” by blaming Russia for the poisoning. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Johnson said it was “overwhelmingly likely” Putin ordered the nerve agent attack.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision, and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War,” Johnson said.
Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Johnson’s remarks were a “shocking and inexcusable breach of diplomatic propriety” and repeated the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement in the attack. A Kremlin spokesperson said the UK blaming Russia for poisonings in England was “absolutely crazy.”
May said Britain would work to incorporate into a pending sanctions bill elements of the so-called Magnitsky Act, which restricts investments by those accused of human rights abuses in Russia, essentially a circle around President Putin, saying: “There is no place for these people, or their money, in our country.”
She also warned that Russian state assets could be frozen if linked to any danger to Britain, though refrained from giving further details on potential financial penalties. She did not mention Russia’s state-funded news channel RT, whose license is being reassessed by media regulator Ofcom following the attack on Skripal.
As well as the expulsion of diplomats, May said her government will suspend all high-level contacts with the Russian government, and revoke an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. She said Britain would limit royal and official attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia later in the year.
British politicians and analysts have pointed to similarities between the latest attack and the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. More than a dozen Russians have died in suspicious circumstances, according to a 2017 investigation by BuzzFeed News in the UK, which has become relevant after being ignored by the wider media. The government has announced a fresh inquiry into those deaths.
Businessman Bill Browder, the promoter of the Magnitsky Act who has taken on the Kremlin for years and described himself as Putin’s number one enemy, told WikiTribune the attack reflected a “complete failure” by Britain to tackle past Kremlin actions such as the death of Litvinenko, creating “a very serious security risk” for Putin’s opponents in the West, including himself.
“Nothing has changed,” Browder said. “We just need to remember they killed Litvinenko in the middle of London.” Browder, who has successfully campaigned for sanctions against Putin and his allies, said he knew his own life was under threat from the Russian government: “Living in the UK, when they don’t do anything, creates a very serious security risk for me and the people around me.”
Allies back UK over nerve agent attack
The European Union offered its “unqualified solidarity” to the UK after the diplomatic crisis with Moscow over the attempted murder of a former Russian double agent intensified over the weekend.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on March 19 called the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on March 4 a “reckless and illegal act” but stopped just short of endorsing the UK government’s view that the Kremlin was probably responsible.
“The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible,” the statement read.
France, Germany, and the United States joined Britain to condemn Russia for what they suspect is Kremlin involvement in the attack on Skripal.
“This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” the leaders said in a joint statement. “It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.”
U.S. President Donald J. Trump offered support to the UK on March 13, alongside spokespeople for the German and French governments and a senior EU diplomat. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, reaffirmed the U.S.’s support for the UK on March 14, saying her government agrees with the UK’s conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attack.
Trump spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on March 20 and congratulated him on his election win, without raising the attack on the Skripals. President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker also congratulated Putin without mentioning the attack.
On March 15, the U.S. government also confirmed it will impose sanctions on 19 Russian government individuals and entities for attempted election meddling and cyber attacks on major infrastructure. The individuals include 13 people who were charged last month by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller and six others named on Thursday.
NATO and a number of senior EU figures all expressed their support for the UK following May’s statement which itself echoed the NATO doctrine that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Novichok use points to Russia
Novichok was designed to be undetectable by standard NATO methodology, to be stronger than previous strands of nerve agent, and to be easier to transport, as some strands consist of two elements, only becoming dangerous when combined (Stimson Center). The exact strain of novichok used against the Skripals has not been revealed, but at least one type is five-to-eight times as strong as VX, the nerve agent used to kill the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un last year.
The existence of novichok was revealed in 1992 by one of its developers, Russian state scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who was concerned about the environmental dangers of the agent, and the likelihood they breached chemical weapons conventions. Mirzayanov was arrested on charges of treason, but later released.
Commenting on why Russia would use an easily traceable rare poison, James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at think-tank Chatham House, suggested two reasons. The first was to send a message to the West, and the second “is because they don’t care.”
Nixey told WikiTribune: “This is an act of terrorism using a chemical agent and we know from whence the provenance is … It is by our weak response to [the 2006 murder of Alexander] Litvinenko that we have encouraged this thing to happen again. Another weak response will further undermine us.”
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Skripal and the “sleepers”
Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU foreign military intelligence, arrived in the UK as part of a prisoner exchange in 2010. Skripal and three others were exchanged for 10 Russian “sleeper” agents living in the United States (Quartz.com). One of the best known of the Russian agents in the swap was Anna Chapman, who posed as a glamour model after the spy swap and this week was featured posing in Thailand (The Sun).
A Moscow court found Skripal guilty of passing information on Russian agents to Britain’s foreign intelligence service MI6 in 2006. He was then pardoned as part of the spy swap.
After the prisoner swap, Putin said the “swine” who exposed the sleeper cells in the United States wouldn’t be hunted down and killed by Russian intelligence (The Telegraph). “Russia’s special services don’t do that,” he said. “As for the traitors, they will croak all by themselves. Whatever equivalent of 30 pieces of silver they get, it will get stuck in their throats.”
In 2006, the Russian government passed legislation allowing its forces to target “extremists” abroad. The legislation put the power to order a strike in the hands of the president and broadened the definition of those who can be targeted.
Facts and speculation
A highly speculative report in The Telegraph suggested Skripal had been in contact with someone from the security analysis firm founded by former British secret agent Christopher Steele who authored the dossier at the center of claims that the Kremlin had compromising material on President Trump. That connection has not been made elsewhere.
Litvinenko was a former FSB agent who defected to the UK and became a Putin critic working for exiled oligarch Berezovsky. He died in 2006 from radiation poisoning after drinking tea spiked with polonium 210. British authorities said the assassination was ordered by the Kremlin. Berezovsky himself died in 2013 in what was determined to be a suicide.
A public inquiry eventually found strong circumstantial evidence that Litvinenko was murdered by the Russian state, and pointed to a number of other political murders apparently carried out in Russia that bore similarities to the Litvinenko’s death.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on March 6, Marina Litvinenko, Litvinenko’s widow, said the attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal felt like “deja vu” and added: “It just shows how we need to take it seriously, all of these people asking for security and for safety in the UK.”
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