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Russian hand suspected in attack on spy in UK

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 18, 2018

A file photo of Sergei Skripal   -  Reuters

Britain’s already poor relations with Russia threatened to deteriorate rapidly on Tuesday, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson labelled Russia a “malign and disruptive force” and said Britain would take whatever action was necessary should “suspicions” of Russian state involvement in the predicament of a former spy and his daughter, who remain in critical condition after falling ill in the south-west English city of Salisbury, prove correct.

Johnson said that with investigations ongoing into the events that led to 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia being found unconscious on a bench in The Maltings shopping mall, it would be “wrong to prejudge” the situation or speculate on the precise nature of the “crime”.

However, he acknowledged “echoes” of the death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006. “No attempt to take innocent life in British soil will go unsanctioned and unpunished,” he told MPs as he responded to an emergency question in the House of Commons on the unfolding situation.

If Moscow was found to be involved, Johnson added, it would be difficult to see how the English team could participate in the football World Cup, scheduled to be held in Russia in June and July.

Skripal was jailed in Russia for spying for the UK in 2006, and freed as part of a 2010 spy swap between the United States and Russia in Vienna that saw four Western agents exchanged for 10 Russian agents.

Investigation

Counter-terrorism police and others have been involved in the latest investigation, which has been ongoing since Wiltshire Police discovered the unconscious duo, without any visible injuries, on a bench in the shopping arcade on Sunday afternoon, following a call from a member of the public. The two were being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance.

Both remain in critical condition, as police forces sealed off a number of sites, including Zizzi, an Italian restaurant chain, and a pub in the shopping centre. “We cannot confirm how long these cordons will remain in place,” police said, adding that there did not appear to be an immediate risk to public health.

British media were quick to draw parallels with the death of Litvinenko, who died three weeks after falling ill from poisoning by radioactive polonium 210 in London. A public inquiry published in 2016 concluded that Litvinenko had been poisoned by two agents acting “under the direction of the FSB” and that the “FSB operation to kill Litvinenko was probably approved by former FSB directorNikolai Patrushev and also by Russian President Putin.”

“When a major enemy of Russia suddenly becomes critically ill from an unknown substance, one has to assume the worst,” Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital and head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, told the BBC”s Newsnight programme on Monday night.

Russian pattern

“We are seeing a pattern in Russian behaviour,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, pointing to a 2017 report by Buzzfeed that highlighted 14 suspicious deaths in the UK that allegedly pointed to Russian state involvement.

Johnson acknowledged that Russia was engaged in “malign” activities that stretched from the “murder” of journalists to the “mysterious assassination of politicians” and said that should the current investigation conclude state responsibility, Britain would review its existing sanctions regime.

The developments triggered a wider debate on Britain’s relationship with Russia, with some MPs warning that the country was waging a “soft war” with the West, including through electoral interference, while one MP drew parallels between now and the Cold War, and another, drawing parallels with the 1930s, dubbed Russia “the new Germany”.

Johnson rejected the suggestion that the situation was similar to the “existential” threat posed during the 1970s and 1980s but acknowledged that Russia only respected “force” which made it essential for the West to maintain a forward presence to its eastern border, and enforce its tough sanctions regime that followed the annexation of Crimea.

Pressure is also building on the government for full-fledged legislation similar to the US’s Magnitsky Act of 2012, which allows the government to impose visa bans and financial sanctions on individuals determined to be responsible for human rights abuses and corrupt acts.

Published on March 06, 2018

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