LONDON (Reuters) – Britain gave President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to strike down a former Russian double agent who passed secrets to British intelligence.
Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, have been in hospital in a critical condition since March 4 when they were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping center in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury.
Prime Minister Theresa May said it was“highly likely” that Russia was to blame after Britain identified the substance as part of the highly-lethal Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military during the 1970s and 1980s.
“Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” May said.
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country,” May said.“Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
Russia, which holds a presidential election on March 18, has denied any role in the poisoning and says Britain is whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.
Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko, summoned to the Foreign Office, was given until the end of Tuesday to explain what happened or face what May said were“much more extensive” measures against the $1.5 trillion Russian economy.
If no satisfactory Russian response is received by midnight London time then May will outline Britain’s response in parliament. She is due to hold a meeting of top security officials on Wednesday.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the poisoning represented the first use of nerve agents on the continent of Europe since World War Two. The British response, he said, would be“commensurate but robust”.
Russia has requested access to the nerve agent used against Skripal but Britain has denied it access, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Interfax reported that Russia had summoned the British ambassador.
JOINT WESTERN RESPONSE
Britain could call on allies for a coordinated Western response, freeze the assets of Russian business leaders and officials, expel diplomats, launch targeted cyber attacks and cut back participation in events such as the soccer World Cup.
European allies including French President Emmanuel Macron expressed solidarity with Britain though President Donald Trump has not yet publicly commented on the attack.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States had full confidence in the assessment that Russia was responsible. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States stood by Britain but stopped short of blaming Russia.
The European Union pledged to stand by Britain, which is due to leave the bloc in just over a year’s time, though the bloc has struggled to maintain a common front on Russian sanctions.
A conservative ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Norbert Roettgen, said that if Russia fails to cooperate then there should be a joint Western response.
British lawmakers say Russia’s oligarchs, the super-wealthy who amassed fortunes under Boris Yeltsin and Putin, should be denied entry to the luxury lifestyles offered by London and the West.
The British capital has been dubbed“Londongrad” due to the large quantities of Russian money that have poured in since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The EU has travel restrictions and asset freezes against 150 people and 38 companies. EU nationals and companies are also banned from buying or selling new bonds or equity in some state-owned Russian banks and major Russian energy companies.
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 British 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 later became a member of the Russian parliament.
Both denied responsibility, as did Moscow.
Putin, a former KGB spy who took over as Kremlin chief from Yeltsin on the last day of 1999, has denied allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and says the West has repeatedly tried to undermine Russian interests.
Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and in 2010 was given refuge in Britain after being exchanged for Russian spies.
Since emerging from the John le Carre world of high espionage and betrayal, he has lived modestly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious on Sunday.
A British policeman who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition, police said.
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Richard Balmforth