EU leaders agreed last week it was highly likely Russia was behind the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in the UK.Some 48 diplomats at the Russian embassy have been asked to leave and 12 Russians who work at the United Nations. The Russian consulate in Seattle will also be closed.
Senior US administration officials said the Russians being expelled were intelligence officers who are being “cloaked” by their diplomatic status.The US officials accused Russia of a “reckless attempt” to murder British citizens on UK soil and said the attack would not go unpunished.
A senior US administration official said: “This was a reckless attempt by the government to murder a British citizen and his daughter on British soil with a military-grade nerve agent. It cannot go unanswered.
“The Salisbury attack was only the latest in a long series of Russian efforts to undermine international peace and stability.
“The Russian government has shown malicious contempt for the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide. It has repeatedly sought to subvert and discredit Western institutions. These efforts are ongoing.
A number of European states, including Germany and Poland, have announced similar moves this morning. The German foreign ministry confirmed Berlin has expelled four Russian diplomats over the Salisbury attack while Poland has said it is also expelling four of the state’s diplomats.
Russian diplomatic staff based in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Estonia have also been asked to leave.
US officials said the 60 Russians were part more than 100 spies operating in America. They said they would make decisions in the future about what to do with those remaining.
Mr Trump has not discussed the move with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. US officials did not rule out the possibility of new economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for Salisbury, saying instead when asked that there was nothing to announce.
The action comes after more than a fortnight of mixed messages over America’s willingness to take a tough line on Russia for the Salisbury poisoning.
The White House declined to point the finger at Russia explicitly the day Theresa May linked the Kremlin with the attack during an address in the House of Commons.
Mr Trump also failed to mention that attack during a phone call with Mr Putin last week and at times has not matched the critical rhetoric of cabinet colleagues and officials.Senior US administration officials pushed back on the suggestion they had been sending “mixed messages” on Monday, saying that they stood with Britain over the attack. (The Telegraph)
Yet Mr Chizhov told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show Russia had “nothing to do” with the poisoning.He questioned how Britain worked out Novichok was responsible “so quickly,” claiming “it can only mean they had some standard” to compare against.
Asked how the nerve agent came to be used in Salisbury he told the BBC: “When you have a nerve agent or whatever, you check it against certain samples that you retain in your laboratories.
“And Porton Down, as we now all know, is the largest military facility in the United Kingdom that has been dealing with chemical weapons research.
“And it’s actually only eight miles from Salisbury.”
Pressed on whether he was claiming Porton Down was responsible he shrugged: “I don’t know, I don’t know… I don’t have evidence of anything being used.”
But he added: “There were certain specialists, including some scientists who today claim to be responsible for creating some nerve agents, that have been whisked out of Russia and are currently residing in the United Kingdom.”
The Foreign Office said there was “not an ounce of truth” in his suggestion of a link to Porton Down.
A spokesperson told the BBC: “It’s just another futile attempt from the Russian state to divert the story away from the facts – that Russia has acted in flagrant breach of its international obligations.”Britain triggered a diplomatic stand-off this week by booting 23 Russian diplomats out of London and severing high-level ties.
Moscow hit back yesterday by expelling 23 Brits, no longer allowing the UK to open a consulate in St Petersburg and terminating the British Council’s activities in Russia.
Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are set to arrive in Britain tomorrow to test samples of the nerve agent, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.
Mrs May, set to chair a National Security Council meeting on Tuesday, told Tory activists on Saturday: “We will consider our next steps in the coming days.”
Those reportedly include emergency laws to make it easier to seize money laundered through Britain by Russian residents; a stronger visa regime to stop Vladimir Putin’s cronies travelling to London, and forcing Russian oligarchs in the UK to account for “unexplained” wealth.
Banks, energy firms and water companies are reportedly on “maximum alert” to the threat of a cyber-attack.
Boris Johnson will seek to rally the support of the other 27 EU foreign ministers at a regular summit tomorrow.
The poisoning is not on the official agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, but ministers will discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Mr Johnson will have a chance to meet them on the sidelines.
Today Mr Johnson hit back at Russia’s counter-measures as “futile”, saying “resisting a bully is always risky” but it is the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said Britain should “pull the plug” on state-funded, UK-based TV channel Russia Today.
She said the channel spouts “absurd conspiracies” and “poisons our public discourse”, adding: “Russia is industrialising false information: less an iron curtain these days than a web of lies”. (Mirror)
According to reports, officials said they fear the ex-spy’s daughter was “collateral damage” as detectives continued to investigate the theory that a Kremlin assassin carried out a hit, possibly by spraying them with a substance as they sat together on a bench.
The pair remained critically ill in hospital on Tuesday night as Scotland Yard counter-terror detectives took over the Wiltshire Police inquiry into the suspected attack.
The deaths of Mr Skripal’s wife Liudmila from cancer in 2012 and his son Alexander, 44, last year in St Petersburg will also be considered as part of the Met Police investigation, the Times reported.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, is to chair a meeting of the Cobra crisis committee today in connection with the suspected assassination. This comes as Prime Minister Theresa May faced growing pressure to be ready to take on Russian leader Vladimir Putin amid the investigation.
The ex-spy’s relatives had told the BBC Russian Service that he believed the Russia special services would come after him at any time. An anonymous relative was quoted as saying “he knew it would end badly and that he would not be left alone”.
More details began to emerge yesterday about the mysterious collapse of the pair, which has sparked a diplomatic war of words between Britain and Russia.
Relations between the UK and the Kremlin soured after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went on the offensive in the House of Commons.
One line of inquiry is that Mr Skripal could have inhaled the deadly chemical after being attacked in the street near the Maltings shopping centre, the Daily Mail reported. It is believed his daughter could have come into contact with the substance while trying to help.
Another possibility is that the pair’s drinks were spiked in the nearby Mill pub, where they are believed to have gone following a meal in a Zizzi restaurant. (Evening Standard)
One of the two people critically ill in hospital in Salisbury after “suspected exposure to an unknown substance” is a Russian man who was exchanged in a high-profile “spy swap” in 2010, the Guardian understands.
Sergei Skripal, 66, was one of four Russians exchanged for 10 deep covers “sleeper” agents planted by Moscow in the US.
Wiltshire police said that a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s were found unconscious on a bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday afternoon.
Temporary assistant chief constable Craig Holden said that the pair were believed to have been known to each other and were in a critical condition.
He added: “This has not been declared as a counter-terrorism incident and we would urge people not to speculate. “However, I must emphasise that we retain an open mind and we will continue to review this position.”
A passerby, Freya Church, saw the pair at the shopping centre. She told the BBC: “On the bench, there was a couple – an older guy and a younger girl. She was leant in on him. It looked like she’d passed out. He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky. I felt anxious like I should step in but they looked so out of it. They looked like they had been taking something quite strong.”
Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street in the city centre has been closed in connection with the incident “as a precaution” while the investigation continues, police said.
“Public Health England are aware of this and have reiterated that, based on the evidence to date, there is no known risk to the public’s health. However, as a precaution they have advised that if you feel ill contact the NHS on 111 … [or] 999.”
A police van was outside Skripal’s home in Salisbury on Monday night. James Puttock, a neighbour, said that he had lived in the area for more than seven years. He was “very quiet”, he said. “If I see him on the street I say hello. Police have been here since Sunday afternoon. They’re in the house asking questions now.”
Puttock, 47, added: “He [Skripal] said hello if he walked past, and seemed like a nice chap. When he moved in he invited us all over for a housewarming party – I imagine he invited the whole street.
“He had been here for quite a while. People came and went from the house but I didn’t pay much attention.
“He was always walking past, but he did sometimes drive his BMW 3 Series. He never really looked smart, he looked very casual.”
The sudden and unexplained illness will invite comparisons with the poisoning in 2006 of another Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, whose death sparked a major international incident.
Skripal is a former Russian army colonel who was convicted of passing the identities of Russian agents working undercover in Europe to MI6 in 2006. He arrived in the UK as part of a high-profile spy swap in 2010.
He was sentenced in August 2006 in Russia to 13 years in jail for spying for Britain after being convicted of “high treason in the form of espionage”. Russian prosecutors said he had been paid $100,000 (£72,000) by MI6 for information he had been supplying since the 1990s when he was a serving officer.
He was flown to the UK as part of an exchange that involved the notorious group of deep cover “sleeper” agents planted by Russia in the US, which included Anna Chapman, a diplomat’s daughter, being taken to Moscow. It had been assumed that Skripal had been given a new identity, home, and pension.
However, Land Registry documents show his house was registered in his real name and was bought for £260,000 with no mortgage on 12 August 2011, just over a year after the spy swap. Igor Sutyagin, who was swapped at the same time as Skripal and is now in the UK, said it was too early to tell whether Skripal was the victim of foul play.
“We don’t know. It’s all hypothetical,” he told the Guardian. But Sutyagin said the Kremlin’s view of defectors was clear. “Vladimir Putin was once asked what type of people populate the world. He said, traitors and enemies. I was told once by a Russian diplomat in London that Putin compared me to Judas. That is their attitude.”
Sutyagin said he had chatted with Skripal for several hours when they were flown to Austria in 2010 as part of the spy swap.
“He talked about his family. It seemed to me it was his family which was his major joy.” They didn’t keep in touch, Sutyagin said, adding that Skripal’s career profile suggested he had served abroad undercover as an officer with military intelligence. Earlier on Monday there were suggestions that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times stronger than heroin, which can be fatal in small doses, may have been involved in the incident.
Litvinenko – a former officer with the FSB spy agency – fell ill in November 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium. He met his killers in a ground-floor bar of the Millennium hotel in Mayfair, central London. The pair were Andrei Lugovoi – a former KGB officer turned businessman, who is now a deputy in Russia’s state Duma – and Dmitry Kovtun, a childhood friend of Lugovoi’s from a Soviet military family.
Litvinenko’s murder caused international scandal and led to years of estrangement between Moscow and London.
Putin denied all involvement and refused to extradite either of the killers from Moscow. A public inquiry in 2015 and 2016 heard five months of evidence, including secret submissions from UK spy agencies. Its chairman, Sir Robert Owen, concluded that the FSB had murdered Litvinenko, assigning Lugovoi and Kovtun to carry out the mission.
Owen also ruled that Putin had “probably approved” the operation, together with the FSB’s then chief Nikolai Patrushev. Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko who helped him escape Russia in 2000, said the Skripal case was suggestive of a Russian plot.
“What’s interesting now is that this happens just before Russia’s presidential election,” he said. “Putin awarded Lugovoi a state honour and made him a national hero. He apparently sees a positive electoral gain from this kind of activity.
Goldfarb added: “Russia is a nationalistic country where state-run propaganda portrays the UK as the enemy and people like Skripal as traitors.”
Some in Russia suggested the Salisbury incident was a British attempt to discredit Putin, who is all but certain to win a new six-year term of office at this month’s ballot.
“The Anglo-Saxons have arranged Litvinenko 2.0 ahead of the elections,” Alexander Kots, a journalist for the pro-Kremlin Komsolskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Asked for a comment on the story, a spokesman for the Russian embassy said: “Neither relatives nor legal representatives of the said person, nor the British authorities have addressed the embassy in this regard.” (The Guardian)