Britain and Russia brace for showdown over nerve attack on ex-spy

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain braced for a showdown with Russia on Wednesday after a midnight deadline set by Prime Minister Theresa May expired without an explanation from Moscow about how a Soviet-era nerve toxin was used to strike down a former Russian double agent.

The United States, European Union and NATO voiced support for Britain after May said it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military.

Russia, which denied any involvement, said it was not responding to May's ultimatum until it received samples of the nerve agent, in effect challenging Britain to show what sanctions it would impose against Russian interests.

"Moscow had nothing to do with what happened in Britain. It will not accept any totally unfounded accusations directed against it and will also not accept the language of ultimatums," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

He said Russia remained open to cooperating with Britain in investigating the poisoning, blaming the British authorities for refusing to share information.

Russia's Interfax news agency reported the Russian embassy in London planned to ask for consular access to Yulia Skripal, Sergei's daughter.

Britain's response to the expiry of the deadline and lack of explanation from Moscow was expected to be announced by May in parliament later, after she chaired a meeting of the National Security Council at her Downing Street office in the morning.

London could call on Western allies for a coordinated response, freeze the assets of Russian business leaders and officials, limit their access to London's financial center, expel diplomats and even launch targeted cyber attacks.

It may also cut back participation in the soccer World Cup, which Russia is hosting in June and July.

Russia is due to hold a presidential election on Sunday in which Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, is expected to coast to a fourth term in the Kremlin. He was first installed as Kremlin chief by Boris Yeltsin on the last day of 1999.

U.S. President Donald Trump told May by telephone Russia "must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom," the White House said.

The White House said Trump and May "agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms."

A British readout of the conversation said, "President Trump said the US was with the UK all the way."


Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found slumped unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the genteel southern English city of Salisbury on March 4. They have been in a critical condition in hospital ever since.

British scientists identified the poison as a military-grade nerve agent from a group of chemicals known as Novichok, first developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

May said either the Russian state had poisoned Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, or Russia had somehow lost control of its chemical weapons. Putin said last year that it had destroyed its last stockpiles of such weapons.

A Russian chemist who helped develop the nerve agent said only the Russian government could have carried out the attack.

Vil Mirzayanov, 83, said he had no doubt that Putin was responsible, given that Russia maintains tight control over its Novichok stockpile and the agent is too complicated for a non-state actor to have weaponized.

“The Kremlin all the time, like all criminals, denying - it doesn’t mean anything,” said U.S.-based Mirzayanov, an exile.

Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain before being arrested in Moscow and later jailed in 2006. He was freed under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain.

A British policeman who was also affected by the nerve agent is now conscious in a serious but stable condition.

May said Russia had shown a pattern of aggression including the annexation of Crimea and the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 after drinking green tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

A public inquiry found the killing of Litvinenko had probably been approved by Putin and carried out by two Russians, one of them a former KGB bodyguard who became a member of the Russian parliament. Both denied responsibility, as did Moscow.

Counter-terrorism officers began investigating the death of another Russian in Britain on Tuesday, although police said it was not thought to be linked to the attack on the Skripals.

Nikolai Glushkov, 68, who was an associate of late tycoon Boris Berezovsky, was found dead on Monday. Berezovsky was found dead in March 2013 with a scarf tied around his neck in the bathroom of his luxury mansion west of London.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael HoldenAdditional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Writing by Estelle Shirbon, Editing by William Maclean)

03/14/2018 6:38

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