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Former spy’s poisoning leads to rift between U.K. and Russia

By Sheetal Sukhija, Washington State News
13 Mar 2018, 12:45 GMT+10

LONDON, U.K. - The U.K. Prime Minister, Theresa May issued an ultimatum to Russia, over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal on Monday.

May has given the Russian President Vladimir Putin time until midnight on Tuesday to explain how the former spy was poisoned in Salisbury.

Skripal was found slumped over and unresponsive next to his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, on a bench outside a shopping mall in Salisbury, England. 

Post their discovery, the police spent 48 hours trying to figure out what sickened the former Russian spy, his daughter and one police officer who was the first to arrive at the scene.

Initially, the police described it as an illness triggered after exposure to an unknown substance but soon, the counter terrorism police took over the investigation.

British troops, trained in chemical warfare began assisting with the probe after officials declared that the duo had been poisoned by a rare nerve agent.

But even as Skripal and his daughter continue to receive treatment in intensive care, the entire investigation has threatened ties between Russia and Britain.

On Monday, May argued that the origin of nerve agent and past record of assassinations make Russian involvement highly likely.

She said Putin’s administration has until Tuesday midnight to explain how Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury, otherwise she will conclude it was an “unlawful use of force” by the Russian state against the U.K.

The Prime Minister, who chaired a meeting of the national security council, told MPs that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack on Skripal and his daughter. 

She further warned that Britain would not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

May issued a statement to the House of Commons that triggered an angry response from Moscow.

She said the evidence had shown that Skripal had been targeted by a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

She described the incident as an “indiscriminate and reckless act,” and said that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had summoned the Russian ambassador to Whitehall and demanded an explanation by the end of Tuesday.
However the reaction angered Russian officials, who immediately hit back and Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign minister, called the remarks “a provocation” and described the event as a “circus show in the British parliament.”

Further, Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian member of parliament who stands accused of the 2006 murder of the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, said May’s decision to point the finger at Moscow so quickly was “at a minimum irresponsible.”

May’s statement came after ministers on the national security council were told that the nerve agent used was from a family of substances known as Novichok. 

She said, “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts 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.”
May then argued, “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

She further clarified that she believed there was already “a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” and pointed out the illegal annexation of Crimea, violating European airspace and a “sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption,” including “meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag, among many others.” 

She also spoke of the extrajudicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia and the murder of Litvinenko.

May said the government would consider Russia’s response on Wednesday.

Vowing to return to the house with a full range of retaliatory measures, sh said, “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.”

Adding, “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.”

Meanwhile, Amber Rudd, the home secretary is set to chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall on Tuesday to discuss the latest developments in the investigation.
Reacting to May’s tough stance against Russia on the issue, international allies supported the British Prime Minister’s position.

U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson said whoever had ordered the attack must face serious consequences.

In a statement, Tillerson said, “We have full confidence in the U.K.’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week. There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behaviour. We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.”

Further, May also received support from NATO.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said, “The United Kingdom has concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. And prime minister Theresa May stated today that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act. The use of any nerve agent is horrendous and completely unacceptable. The U.K. is a highly valued ally, and this incident is of great concern to Nato. Nato is in touch with the U.K. authorities on this issue.”

Skripal, who is a former Russian military intelligence officer, was convicted in 2006 of “high treason and spying” for Britain and had been sentenced to 13 years in jail by a Russian court.

He was discovered to have passed sensitive information to MI6, the British intelligence service, in exchange for cash since the early 1990s.

In July 2010, he was pardoned by then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and released by Moscow.

He was flown to Vienna, Austria along with three other accused spies and was part of a Cold War-style spy swap - in return for ten Russian agents, deep-cover “sleeper agents” who were operating for Russia in the U.S.

The infamous Anna Chapman, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s glamour spy, was believed to be part of this exchange.

The 66-year-old former agent later settled in the sleepy cathedral town of Salisbury, southwest of London and seems to have led a quiet life there, living at a modest suburban house.

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