Russia’s nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom demands a response, NATO’s top official said Thursday, but the alliance has not been asked to provide direct support as Britain continues its investigation.
“I am absolutely certain the U.K. will respond, and is responding, in a measured way,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels. “I fully support that there is a need for a response. There has to be consequences.”
Britain has blamed Moscow for the March 4 attack in Salisbury, where a military grade nerve agent was used in an attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The two remain in critical condition. In the two weeks since the attack, tensions have ratcheted up, sparking fears of a potentially dangerous escalation between Russia and U.S. ally Britain.
Washington stands “in absolute solidarity with Great Britain” and believes Russia was responsible for the attack, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told a U.N. Security Council emergency session Wednesday.
London expelled 23 Russian diplomats it identified as undeclared intelligence officers on Wednesday. Moscow has denied any involvement and warned against any retaliatory measures.
“One should not threaten a nuclear power,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters earlier this week.
On Monday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson will arrive at NATO headquarters for a special meeting on the matter.
“This is the first offensive use of a nerve agent on alliance territory since NATO’s foundation,” Stoltenberg said. “All allies agree that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements. This is unacceptable.”
For now, NATO’s support of its ally is largely political and symbolic. Stoltenberg said allies have offered “practical support,” but stopped short of detailing what that amounted to.
“First of all, it is extremely important to express strong political support, sending a message the United Kingdom is not alone,” he said. “The strong expression of solidarity and support is important in and of itself.”
So far, London has not sought to invoke Article 5, the NATO provision that an attack on one member state requires a collective response from all.
The only time Article 5 has been invoked was in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
However, it remains a possibility that London could call for a rare Article 4 meeting, which is when a member calls for a special session of NATO’s highest decision-making committee to discuss a concern.
Stoltenberg’s comments Thursday came as he delivered his annual report on the state of NATO.
Highlights from last year included the deployment of new battlegroups to the Baltics and Poland and increased defense spending among most member states.
At the end of 2017, there were over 23,000 troops serving in NATO deployments, up from under 18,000 in 2014 – before Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and rise of the Islamic State group, Stoltenberg said.
However, the West’s relationship with Russia has shown no sign of improvement, he said.
Stoltenberg cited a pattern of reckless behavior from Russia, while accusing it of meddling in Montenegro and other parts of the Balkans.
Meanwhile, there is growing concern among allies about Russia’s more conventional capabilities, which have undergone modernization in the past decade.
“Russia has integrated conventional and nuclear warfare in its military doctrine and exercises,” he said. “This blurring of the line between nuclear and conventional lowers the threshold for Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. And the blurring of the line between peace, crisis and war is destabilizing and dangerous.”
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