Spy row: UK-Russia relations at a new low

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 15, 2018

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister

France, Germany, Britain and the US accuse Russia of poisoning double agent Sergei Skripal


Tensions between Russia and the West continued to ramp up as France, Germany, Britain and the United States jointly accused Russia of involvement in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in early March.

They said the attack involved the first “offensive use” of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. “It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of all of us”, they said in a joint statement on Thursday.

All four shared Britain’s assessment that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack, and condemned Russia’s failure to address the “legitimate” request by the UK government to explain whether and how a nerve agent developed under a Russian nerve agent programme could have gotten into third-party control. The only alternative to the Russian state’s direct involvement, they said.

French response

The joint statement will be seen as a diplomatic victory for May, who has been under pressure to show her diplomatic clout both across the Atlantic and within Europe. On Wednesday, France had initially avoided blaming Russia directly, saying it awaited evidence first, before joining in the wider response.

European Commission President Donald Tusk also joined in expressing “full solidarity” with the British position “in the face of the brutal attack inspired, most likely, by Moscow”.

Relations between Britain and Russia have fallen to their lowest point since the Cold War, following the poisonings. Britain retaliated on Wednesday by announcing the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats (the largest expulsion since 1985 when Britain expelled 25), and the revocation of an invitation to Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. It accused Russia of the “unlawful use of force” by Russia.

At an urgent meeting of the Security Council in New York on Wednesday, the US joined Britain in condemning Russia, pledging to stand in “absolute solidarity with Great Britain”. The US’ Nikey Haley warned that if immediate action was not taken, Salisbury would not be the last time that a chemical attack happened on western soil.

Novichok, the type of nerve agent, which Britain says was used in the attack, could not have been manufactured by “non-state actors”, Britain’s representative, Jonathan Allen, said.

He attacked Russia’s initial response that Britain was not following the protocol of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Under the OPCW’s convention, Britain “has the right to lead our response…we have not jumped to conclusions”, he said.

Speaking to the BBC earlier on Thursday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said a sample of the nerve agent would be sent to the OPCW.

Russia’s UN envoy, Vissaly Nebenzia, accused Britain of attempting to tarnish Russia with falsehoods, “irresponsible statements”, and “threats to a sovereign state”.

“We do not speak the language of ultimatums and we will not allow us to be spoken to in that way,” he added, accusing Britain of being “afraid of having a genuine professional discussion on the topic”, by choosing the Security Council rather than the OPCW to level its accusations.

China also declined to condemn Russia. “We hope that a comprehensive objective and impartial investigation could be conducted based on facts in accordance with evidence…”, said their representative, who added conclusions reached had to stand the test of “facts and history”.

Britain has also updated its travel advice to its nationals, ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, warning of the possibility of “anti-British sentiment or harassment”. It recommends its nationals to “avoid any protests or demonstrations and avoid commenting publically on politically developments”.

“Frankly Russia should go away, it should shut up,” Britain’s Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said at a meeting on Thursday, when asked about Russia’s response so far.

The development comes amid divisions within Britain’s Labour Party on its recognition of Russia’s role. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the attack “an appalling act of violence”, but said “Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence”.

18 Labour MPs have signed an Early Day Motion (a means of drawing attention to an issue), “unequivocally” accepting the Russian state’s culpability and fully supporting the government response.

Published on March 15, 2018

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