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.
- 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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