Russia highly likely to be behind nerve agent attack, Theresa May tells MPs
The Government’s Cobra emergencies committee will meet on Tuesday morning to assess the latest developments in the Salisbury investigation.
It is “highly likely” that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, Theresa May has told MPs.
The Prime Minister said the substance used was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced by Russia and there were only two possible explanations – either Moscow was behind the attack or it had lost control of its stockpile of the poison.
A failure by Russia to provide a “credible response” would lead her to view the attack in Salisbury as “an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom”, sparking undefined retaliatory measures.
Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko was summoned to a face-to-face meeting with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who gave Moscow a deadline of midnight on Tuesday to respond.
No handshake was offered by Mr Johnson, who voiced Britain’s outrage over the incident and said Moscow must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of its Novichok nerve gas programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd will chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergencies committee in Whitehall at 11.30am on Tuesday to assess the latest position.
In a dramatic statement to the House of Commons after being briefed on the latest intelligence by the National Security Council, Mrs May told MPs: “It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”
She added: “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.”
That meant “either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country” or Vladimir Putin’s government had “lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent”.
The Kremlin has denied the involvement of the Russian government in the nerve agent attack on the Skripals.
Following Mrs May’s statement, news agency Tass quoted Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying: “It is a circus show in the British Parliament.
“The conclusion is obvious, it’s another political information campaign, based on a provocation.”
But Mrs May said: “On Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State.
“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”
Prime Minister confirms Russia alone has means, method and intent. This is deeply threatening to the British people.— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) March 12, 2018
That would result in Mrs May setting out “the full range of measures that we will take in response”.
The National Security Council is expected to meet on Wednesday to discuss the Russian response, if any, ahead of a statement by the PM.
Mrs May said: “This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals.
“It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk.
“And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
In the US administration’s first public statement on the issue, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the attack was “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible”.
She said: “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage.
“We offer the fullest condemnation and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families and our support to the UK Government.
“We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.”
French President Emmannuel Macron offered his country’s solidarity with the UK in a phone call with Mrs May, in which he said that Paris would “co-ordinate closely” with London following Russia’s response.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “They discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it.
“President Macron condemned the attack and offered his solidarity with the UK.
“They agreed that the French and British governments should co-ordinate closely as the investigation developed and following Russia’s response.”
Mrs May used her statement to pay tribute to Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, who is in a serious but stable condition in the Salisbury District Hospital.
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat said Russia’s actions were “deeply threatening to the British people”.
Meanwhile, investigators wearing hazardous materials suits have been working in the village of Winterslow about six miles from Salisbury.
Police and Army teams were at a site where a white van was loaded onto a truck ready to be taken away.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s statement, the Russian embassy accused the UK Government of playing a “very dangerous game” with British public opinion and warned of the risk of “serious long-term consequences”.
In a statement on the embassy website, a spokesman said: “We would like to stress once again that we are outraged by the anti-Russian media campaign, condoned by the Government, that influences the investigation and has a psychological effect on British residents.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed questions about his state’s alleged involvement in the Skripal case.
On a visit to a grain centre, he told the BBC: “We’re dealing with agriculture here… and you talk to me about some tragedies.
“Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this.”