03/12/2018 13:11 EDT | Updated 17 hours ago

Theresa May Says It Is 'Highly Likely' Russia Poisoned Sergei Skripal And His Daughter

PM gives Russia until the end of Tuesday to provide a ‘credible’ response.

  • Theresa May says poisoning an ‘indiscriminate and reckless act’ against UK 
  • PM gives Russia until the end of Tuesday to provide a ‘credible’ response
  • Russia accused by senior MP of committing a ‘warlike act’ against Britain
  • Russia’s ambassador in London summoned to the Foreign Office for ‘frosty’ meeting
  • May reveals deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok was used in Salisbury 
  • Corbyn criticised for highlighting Tory donations from Russian oligarchs
  • US Secretary of State said poisoning “clearly came from Russia”
  • Calls by MPs to ban Russia Today TV channel
  • Possible UK response could include military, diplomatic and financial moves

The diplomatic row between the UK and Russia over the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter reached boiling point on Monday, after Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible.

Speaking in the Commons, the prime minister described the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury as an “indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom”.

“We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” she said. 

“Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

May said Russia’s ambassador in London had been summoned to the Foreign Office to explain whether the attack was “a direct action by the Russian state” or the result of the Russian Government “losing control” of its stock of nerve agents.

Boris Johnson has told the Russian ambassador that Moscow must “immediately provide full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok nerve gas programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

PA Wire/PA Images
Boris Johnson met the Russian ambassador on Monday for a 'frosty' meeting.

Whitehall sources told HuffPost that the Foreign Secretary’s meeting with Alexander Yakovenko was “frosty”.  He was summoned to the Foreign Office at 3.45pm for a face-to-face, five minute meeting.

Johnson’s tone was described as “cool” and no handshake took place. During the meeting he expressed “the outrage felt by the British public” and the “reckless disregard for public safety”.

No10 sources said that a response was requested by midnight on Tuesday to the UK’s demands for an explanation.

A meeting of the UK National Security Council will take place on Wednesday to discuss the British response, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd is to chair a meeting of the Government’s Cobra emergencies committee in Whitehall. May will also update the Commons with her next steps during Prime Minister’s Question time that day.

The White House intervened for the first time, with President Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders describing the incident as “an outrage” and vowing the United States would “stand by our closet ally”.

The US later upped the rhetoric as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the poisoning “clearly came from Russia” and vowed it “will trigger a response” as other UK allies swung behind the Prime Minister. 

Earlier, the prime minister told MPs if “no credible response” was given, the British government would conclude the attack was an unlawful “use of force” against the UK.

The use of the phrase was seen as a prelude for seeking a United Nations resolution condemning the act, and possibly cover in international law for any tough response.

Among the options open to the UK and urged by some in Government are extra deployments of troops in Nato states bordering Russia, the expulsion of the Russian ambassador in London and fresh curbs on Russian finance in the UK.

PA Wire/PA Images
The Labour leader was met with loud heckles of 'disgrace' from the Tory benches

Jeremy Corbyn said the attack was “deeply alarming”, but accused May of “resisting” moves to bring in new financial sanctions powers that could be used against Russia.

The Labour leader was met with loud heckles of “disgrace” from the Tory benches when he used the occasion to highlight that the Conservative Party had received £800,000 in donations from “Russian oligarchs”.

“The action the government takes once the facts are clear needs to be both decisive and proportionate and focused on reducing conflicts and tensions rather than increasing them,” he said.

Tory MP Tim Loughton described Corbyn’s comments as “a joke”, while Anna Soubry was one of many to shout “shame”.  Some Labour MPs also made plain their displeasure with their leader.

As former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith spoke, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry shouted “pay back the money” across the Commons chamber.

Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said Russia had committed a “warlike act” against the UK.

He said Britain’s allies, including the United States, needed to be asked to “assist us in this moment when we are in need”.

May said there had already been “a number of engagements” with allies and that this would continue. 

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI via Getty Images
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

US Secretary of State Tillerson said he was in a call with Foreign Secretary Johnson on Monday morning.

“We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,” he said.

“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.

“From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.

“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

In the Commons, some MPs demanded the swift closure of Russia Today, or RT, the TV station that promotes Moscow’s worldview.

But RT hit back in a statement: “It is regrettable to see RT so quickly proposed to be sacrificed as a political pawn, in one fell swoop doing away with any concept of press freedom in the UK.”

Skripal and his daughter, who collapsed last Sunday, are still fighting for their lives after being exposed to a toxic substance. 

Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey - who fell seriously ill after tending to Skripal and Yulia - also remains in hospital.

Diners and pub-goers in Salisbury have been warned to wash their possessions after traces of the nerve agent were found in the city. 

Public Health England issued the “precautionary advice” to anyone who visited The Mill pub or the nearby Zizzi restaurant between 1.30pm on Sunday, March 4 and closing time Monday, March 5.

What Is Novichok?

Novichok was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s and is said to be ten times stronger than other agents.

May confirmed in the Commons it is banned under international conventions.

Experts suggest Novichok, which means “newcomer” in Russian, is the deadliest nerve agent ever produced – designed to mask itself from NATO detection equipment and chemical protective gear and developed in secret to dodge international treaties.

Over the weekend, reports suggested police had already ruled out both VX, developed by Britain in the 1950s, and Sarin, developed by Germany in the 1930s.

It left Novichok, said to be up to ten times stronger than VX, the most likely agent to have been deployed.

Novichok became notorious in the 1990s when a Soviet scientist called Vil Mirzayanov was put on trial for revealing its existence.

In an interview with the New York Times, Mirzayanov spoke of how it was far more potent than anything in the US - and that it was so secret it didn’t become known for as much as a decade after it was actually available.

It reported: 

“Mr Mirzayanov told me that the Russian stockpile of chemical weapons, some 60,000 tons, ‘would be enough to kill tens of millions.’ Since Novichok was not developed in large quantities, he said, the Russians may have only enough of it to kill several hundred thousand people. Although this would be ample to wipe out a medium-sized city, he said, there would be hidden costs as well: ‘mutations in the next generation or future generations.’

In a blog written before the PM’s statement, freelance journalist Philip Ingram noted how Novichok was designed to be undetectable for any standard chemical security testing - and that investigators in Salisbury appeared to respond to its identity being revealed.

He wrote: “We have seen military personnel wearing additional protective suits over their standard military issue ones but what look like standard respirators.

“These agents work in a similar way to other nerve agents and can be treated in a similar way.”