Diplomacy |Developing

UK offers detail on intelligence it says points to Russia over spy attack

  1. UK blames Moscow for attack on former double agent and daughter
  2. Western allies expelled over 100 Russian diplomats
  3. Moscow isolated at UN, but warns Britain 'you're playing with fire, and you'll be sorry'

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Jack Barton

Jack Barton

"I have uploaded and linked to the OPC..."
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Michael Ivanov

"As for Sky news, they seem to throw p..."
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Michael Ivanov

"To be fair, the beginning of the arti..."
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Michael Ivanov

"Besides, all the versions considered ..."

A day after UN-backed chemical weapons inspectors confirmed the UK’s conclusion that a former Russian spy and his daughter were attacked using a nerve agent, novichok, the British government reaffirmed and set out further detail on why it had blamed Moscow for the attack, sparking a global diplomatic crisis.

In a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, UK National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill said Britain’s conclusions, repeatedly discredited by Moscow, were based on Russia having “the technical means, operational experience and the motive” to carry out the attack.

Citing “a combination of credible open-source reporting and intelligence,” Sedwill said the UK suspected Russian operatives of stockpiling novichok and experimenting with deploying it on door handles, the means by which Sergei and Yulia Skripal are thought by police to have come into contact with the nerve agent on March 4.

“During the 2000s, Russia commenced a programme to test means of delivering chemical warfare agents and to train personnel from special units in the use of these weapons,” Sedwill wrote. “This programme subsequently included investigation of ways of delivering nerve agents, including by application to door handles. Within the last decade, Russia has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks under the same programme.”

Sedwill also said the UK has intelligence that Yulia Skripal’s email accounts were targeted by the GRU (Russia’s foreign intelligence agency) as far back as 2013.

The British government said on March 14 the Skripals were attacked using novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, and said it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was either directly responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent, which it was supposed to have destroyed all stocks of.

The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on April 12 the UK’s conclusions are correct after being invited by Britain to investigate the March 4 attack.

The BBC reported that Yulai Skripal, 33, was discharged from hospital on Monday night and transported to a secure location. The hospital’s medical director confirmed her release to reporters on Tuesday morning. Sergei Skripal, 66, is recovering but still in hospital.

On 14 March, UK Prime Minister Theresa May responded to the attack by expelling 23 Russian diplomats, suspected of being undeclared intelligence officers, and rallied support from international allies.

President Donald J. Trump on March 26 ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats from the United States. At least 22 other countries followed suit, with over 100 Russian diplomats returning to Moscow.

The use of a military-grade nerve agent fits with Russia’s “ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world,” a White House statement read.

On April 6, the U.S. Treasury Department placed 24 Russians under sanctions which limit their ability to do business in the U.S., citing the Kremlin’s “range of malign activity around the globe.”

Russia has consistently denied involvement in the attack and tried to discredit the UK’s conclusions, but has been largely isolated on the world stage.

On April 5, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzia, said Britain was using “horrific and unsubstantiated” allegations in an attempt to destabilize Russia, but the United Nations Security Council rejected calls from Russia to force the UK to open a joint investigation into the attack.

Nebenzia warned Britain “you’re playing with fire, and you’ll be sorry.”

His UK counterpart, Karen Pierce, said her government’s position on the attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia stands up to scrutiny.

Britain’s allies on the 15-member Security Council, including the United States and France, said they supported London’s position that responsibility for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal lies with the Kremlin.

Solidarity from UK allies, Moscow responds

Around 100 diplomats were scheduled to return to Russia, the largest exodus of Russian diplomats since “the height of the Cold War,” according to Reuters. European Council President Donald Tusk issued a statement on March 26 saying 14 EU countries had decided to expel Russian diplomats after agreeing with the UK’s finding that Russia is responsible, and there is “no plausible alternative explanation.”

The State Department said 12 of the diplomats in the United States were intelligence operatives employed by the Russian mission to the United Nations in New York. The United States also closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, due to its proximity to a naval base and a Boeing manufacturing site that produces equipment for the U.S. Air Force.

Canada and Ukraine also announced expulsions and were joined over the next 24 hours by Australia, Norway, and several other non-EU countries. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) said it was expelling seven members of the Russia mission from its headquarters in Brussels. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that the response, being triggered by the Salisbury attack, was part of a broader response to a pattern of an unacceptable and dangerous behaviour by Russia.

According to the BBC, France, Germany, and Poland each planned to expel four Russian diplomats, with 11 other EU countries sending a combined 18 back to Moscow. Ukraine announced it would expel 13 diplomats and Canada four.

Australia has ordered two diplomats to leave, and Norway, one. Several other countries, including Portugal and New Zealand, expressed support for the expulsions, and Iceland called for a diplomatic boycott of this summer’s soccer World Cup, which will be hosted by Russia.

The EU recalled its ambassador to Moscow after UK Prime Minister Theresa May used an EU summit to push for support and a joint effort undermining Russian intelligence networks.

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Russia sent home diplomats from 23 countries on March 30 as the Kremlin acted on its warnings that it would respond to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK, United States, and other countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has twice suggested the British government could be responsible for the attack, and demanded access to the UK’s investigation and consular access to Yulia Skripal.

At a meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on April 4, the UK’s representative at the body said the Kremlin’s statements regarding the attack have been “shameless.”

On April 4, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was accused by opposition politicians of misleading the public after the head of the laboratory that analyzed the nerve agent contradicted one of his statements, telling Sky News experts were unable to directly link the nerve agent to Russia.

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UK allies’ statements play to Putin domestic narrative

Duncan Allan, a fellow at UK think tank Chatham House, who previously served in UK embassies in Moscow and Kiev, told WikiTribune the scale and spread of the expulsions would have come as a “big surprise” to Russia.

“I don’t think that the strength and the relatively united nature of this response will have been expected by a lot of people in Moscow,” said Allan.

There will “almost certainly” be reciprocal expulsions from Russia “at the minimum,” as indicated by the warning issued in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement, said Allan.

The impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his position will probably be limited in the immediate term, said Allan.

“For a long time now the Putin regime has been playing up the domestic narrative that the West is in conflict with Russia, is out to destabilize Russia, is antagonistic toward Russia,” which helps Putin’s government mobilize domestic support. This narrative will be “re-emphasized” following these expulsions, said Allan.

In brief: what we know so far

For more in-depth reporting of previous developments, see our previous news story, WikiTribune’s reporting linked below, or the best of the coverage elsewhere in sources and references.

  • Sergei Skripal, 66, was a colonel in Russian intelligence who was found to have worked for Britain as a double agent and sentenced by a Moscow court to 13 years in jail in 2006. He was one of four prisoners handed over to the UK and U.S. in a prisoner exchange in 2010.
    • His daughter Yulia, 33, lives in Russia and was visiting. UK police issued a statement on her behalf on April 5, in which she said her strength was “growing daily.”
    • A hospital director said on April 6 that 66-year-old Sergei is now recovering.
  • Novichok is a military-level nerve agent that was identified as the weapon the Skripals were exposed to. It was invented as part of a nerve agent program in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.
    • A 250-strong team has been investigating the attack. They cordoned off the grave of Sergei Skripal’s wife, who died in 2012 and seized the car that brought Yulia Skripal from the airport to Salisbury. Police say they are unlikely to report any conclusions for several months.
    • Samples of the nerve agent are being analyzed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
  • Alexander Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who defected and was assisting UK intelligence when he was poisoned with radioactive polonium 210. A public inquiry reported in 2016 finding strong circumstantial evidence his 2006 death was ordered by the Kremlin. The distinctive and brazen nature of his killing was quickly raised by politicians as an attack that bore similarities to the attack on the Skripals.
    • Litvinenko’s death was one of 14 deaths of people with links to the Kremlin. A Buzzfeed News investigation uncovered how they were linked and found that the CIA had told UK law enforcement of their suspicions over possible links to Russia.

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Sources & References

Statement from the Russian ambassador to the OPCW chemical weapons agency

Recommended reads:

Buzzfeed News – From Russia with blood

Channel 4 News – Does the UK’s case against Russia stack up?

Reuters – Explainer: the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal

FT (may be behind a paywall) – Russia, Skripal, and the reality of modern-day spying


Started by

United Kingdom
Jack Barton is a staff journalist at WikiTribune where he writes about international law, human rights and finance, whilst covering daily news. He was previously a senior reporter at Law Business Research and has experience covering law and international development, with credits in the Sunday Times, the New Indian Express, and New Statesman online among others. He has an LLM in Human Rights and worked on a UN-funded research project, looking at peace processes.

History for stories "UK offers detail on intelligence it says points to Russia over spy attack"

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13 April 2018

14:19:09, 13 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Updated)

12 April 2018

17:21:54, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Tweaked headline)
16:53:15, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → removed repetition of conclusion/conclude)
14:01:22, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ nat avd (Updated → added a para break)
12:35:51, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → changed link)
12:30:52, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → holding update)
12:23:47, 12 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Re-topped)

10 April 2018

11:32:56, 10 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Formatting)
11:31:08, 10 Apr 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Updated and updated timestamp)
11:27:20, 10 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → formatting)
11:26:32, 10 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Re-topped, re-shaped)

06 April 2018

17:08:06, 06 Apr 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Updated)
16:51:33, 06 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Added Skripal)
11:51:56, 06 Apr 2018 . .‎ Burhan Wazir (Updated → edited)
11:33:10, 06 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Updated - UN and Yulia)

04 April 2018

18:10:42, 04 Apr 2018 . .‎ Chuck Thompson (Updated → copyedit, format fix)
17:17:26, 04 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Rewrite)

02 April 2018

20:34:04, 02 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jonathan Miller (Updated → dated Litvinenko's death)
20:30:11, 02 Apr 2018 . .‎ Jonathan Miller (Updated → header detail)
17:05:54, 02 Apr 2018 . .‎ Ingrid Strauch (Updated → )
15:37:23, 02 Apr 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Updated)

31 March 2018

04:02:54, 31 Mar 2018 . .‎ Charles Anderson (Updated → update)

29 March 2018

17:26:42, 29 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → update)
17:18:09, 29 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → freshening story)
17:07:54, 29 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → summary)
16:23:16, 29 Mar 2018 . .‎ George Engels (Updated → retopped)
12:48:20, 29 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → updated with agent on front door)

28 March 2018

14:04:28, 28 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → minor tweaks)
13:20:39, 28 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → moved novichok mention higher)
13:16:58, 28 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → updated)
13:00:43, 28 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → re-topped)
12:09:58, 28 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Added background, recommended reads)

27 March 2018

19:23:19, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Chuck Thompson (Updated → copyedit)
18:07:38, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Ading context)
16:25:06, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Publishing)
16:01:10, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Updating and publishing)
15:50:18, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Update with Lavrov)
12:59:59, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Peter Bale (Updated → Updated with link to Russian statement in sources and references)
12:02:35, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → 100 diplomats)
11:53:22, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → ready)
11:44:39, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Angela Long (Updated → more information)
11:20:17, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Updated)
00:03:57, 27 Mar 2018 . .‎ Charles Anderson (Updated → update)

26 March 2018

22:13:41, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Charles Turner (Updated → added cold war graf. failed to save before)
18:46:37, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Chuck Thompson (Updated → copyedit)
18:12:28, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Jack Barton (Updated → Added expert input)
17:32:52, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → removed double over)
17:31:48, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → shortened headline)
17:30:17, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → headline tweak)
17:28:38, 26 Mar 2018 . .‎ Ed Upright (Updated → format)

Talk for Story "UK offers detail on intelligence it says points to Russia over spy attack"

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  1. Flagged as bias

    ‘The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on April 12 the UK’s conclusions are correct after being invited by Britain to investigate the March 4 attack.’
    This passage comes after describing the far-fetched proofs provided by the uk about the training program and door handles and blaming Russia. Do you really not see how manipulative this is when you make it sound as if OPCW confirmed Russia is to blame (they confirmed the substance only)? And why a link to Sky news instead of analysing and citing OPCW instead?

    1. Rewrite

      To be fair, the beginning of the article (in bold) is clear and sticks to facts, saying opcw confirmed the nerve agent use.

      1. Rewrite

        As for Sky news, they seem to throw propaganda themselves, as this interview cut proves: https://www.google.com.ua/amp/s/www.rt.com/news/424078-sky-news-general-shaw/amp/ so i would avoid referring to them instead of opcw

        1. Rewrite

          I have uploaded and linked to the OPCW statement. The place where I linked to Sky was specifically when the head of Porton Down contradicted what Johnson had said – he told Sky first so I felt it was best practice to cite their coverage.

  2. Flagged as bias

    ‘backs UK over nerve agent attack’ – this is manipulation. They only confirmed UK findings related to the identity (and it is not clear to what extent they support it, as UK had a very meticulosly crafted statement that did not evev surely say it was a nerve agent, even though they suspected it was and they also claimed it to be ‘of a type developed by Russia’ which is not very clear (it is only clear from it that they wanted to assign the blame no matter what kind of nerve agent it was)) while the headline sounds as they said ‘it was Russia who did it’. Yes, it is later mentioned that they did not trace the origin, but the headline is manipulative.

    Apart from this, the fact that there was a nerve agent was not hotly disputed by Moscow, the blame was and is hotly disputed and this is another manipulation to try to represent Moscow’s dispute as false and disinformative, while the fact it was a nerve agent proves nothing of that kind as it could have been administered by anybody, and don’t tell me that only Moscow had the means and motive – that is quite ridiculous considering the political gains of UK in this situation as well as the fact they had had a sample of that substance as confirmed by BJ (and clearly had the means to administer it if needed) and the formula has been available for decades publicly.
    It is tiresome to keep pointing at biased representation of news here, so I think that people like me who question the western media narrative will just give up on the community eventually. I hoped for far more serious standards and mechanisms for ensuring impartiality here, and see that you throw words without weighing them too much even in a case that can potentially lead to 3rd WW.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Michael, I was really trying to keep the headline clear and brief – their statement does specifically back the UK’s conclusions. Moscow has repeatedly tried to sow doubt over the UK’s investigation and its finding that it was novichok.
      However, I do take your point and think there’s always a risk our writing is influenced by the way the story is first framed. We try very hard to be impartial but part of the WikiTribune model is the idea that Community editing will iron out bias – so I would really encourage you and others to edit the story yourself, so that it satisfies you as unbiased. If you don’t get a chance to do so, I will take another go at the headline. Jack

      1. Rewrite

        Thanks, appreciate your reply, I really have no time to do that these days and my English isn’t as good as yours, so I don’t think I’d be able to produce a fancy headline 🙂

        1. Rewrite

          ‘Sow doubt’ is another coined from UN council meeting phrase that puts a label on Russias position. We may as well say that UK tries to sow doubt about Russia’s inocense, but that would be if we were on their side. ‘Sow doubt’ sounds as if you point at their untruthfullness, but as journalists we have no proof to say who is right or wrong I think.

          1. Rewrite

            Ok, I have changed the headline so it echoes more directly what the OPCW said. I guess “sow doubt” is a bit of a cliche, but there has been a lot of different narratives from Moscow on this, as there has been in previous incidents. I have tried not to make judgments, but just point to what different people have said, and what evidence they have cited.

            1. Rewrite

              There have been a lot of versions in Russian media and I wonder why considering various versions is believed to be disinformation or ‘sowing doubt’ and blaming someone without providing direct evidence is not believed to be manipulation and propaganda. Previous incidents are probably out of scope of this conversation.

              1. Rewrite

                Besides, all the versions considered by the media were rather a response to uk’s words that Russia is the only possible and credible version, which is certainly not true. So, they showed how many other versions are possible and that made them ‘sowing doubt’ and disinformation. How is one supposed to defend from false accusations then?

  3. Rewrite

    I’ve read in other articles that Porton Downs has stores of novichok but there is no mention of that or examination of any other investigation into the source of the nerve agent. Are we meant to follow this updated version of the WMD story into another large military action?

    1. Rewrite

      Thanks Del, could you provide some links to articles saying that Porton Down has stores of novichok?

      1. Rewrite

        Boris Jonson confirmed to DW they had a sample of it at least, i.e. they had the ability to stage it. The formulas have been available for more than a decade publicly, US dismantled the premises where it was produced and it is not in Russia.

  4. Other

    I keep hearing and reading references to “military grade” nerve agents.

    This suggests that there are other grades – Is there, perhaps, a “recreational grade” or a “sports grade”?

    As far as I am aware all nerve agents are for military use.

    1. Rewrite

      That’s a fair point, but I think it is used more for clarity than exaggeration. “Nerve agent” technically just means a chemical that affects the nervous system, adding “military grade” tells people it is a weapon, but others may well disagree with my reading of it.

      1. Rewrite

        I think that it’s more about the deliberate use of scary language, emphasis on war-like behaviour, “an attack on the British people”.

        You must have noticed the increase in the use of the word “weaponised” in many so contexts recently.

        1. Rewrite

          Those are carefully chosen words by uk officials and propagated by media to tag it as a war offense. I am glad that they are recovering, but this ‘military grade’ is very strange considering how long they survived after the contact until they could receive any help from the medical staff.
          It is now even sometimes referred to as a WMD on British soil, even though no person was actually killed. So, the scarier it sounds the better, I guess.

  5. Rewrite

    Both title and content of the article sound extremely biased, favouring Russia.

    As Vladimir Frolov puts it, “If the Kremlin does not have a relationship to the poisoning, the reaction was to be completely different – condemnation, full cooperation and calm confidence in its right. Instead, there was a tantrum and a jumble of mutually exclusive versions.” https://goo.gl/2oGHEu (behind paywall)

    1. Rewrite

      It is ridiculous to use the reaction of Russia as a proof for its guilt. When was the last time the UK and Russia had a positive relationship? Why do you expect Russia to react in the manner described in your message when since the beginning it was accused to be involved by the UK?

      Come on. We need to be a more pedantic with the proof than “if they were not guilty, they would have cooperated”…To take an extreme example, guess what will be the reaction of North Korea if the US accuse them of anything similar….Russia is not North Korea, but it is also not France etc

      1. Rewrite

        I do recall Mrs Thatcher describing Mr Gorbachev as someone she could do business with.

    2. Rewrite

      That is very funny you should say that since most of the criticism so far has been that we are Russophobic. Neither is true but if we are irritating people equally perhaps we are in the right place.
      Many of these sentiments have been expressed on what I consider an excellent story on hybrid war as a doctrine: https://www.wikitribune.com/story/2018/03/14/war_&_conflict/russia-changes-the-rules-of-warfare-perfecting-hybrid-war/54989/
      The original main story we did and built on for several weeks is here:
      https://www.wikitribune.com/story/2018/03/06/espionage/former-russian-double-agent-critically-ill-after-contact-with-unknown-substance/53558/

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