In a move that threatens to worsen already tense relations between the Kremlin and the West, Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Russia for poisoning a former spy and his daughter eight days ago on British soil.
May told Parliament on Monday that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been targeted with a “military grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” that was developed by Russia.
She said she gave the Russian government until Wednesday to respond before deciding on retaliatory measures that could range from expulsion of diplomats to further sanctions.
“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the U.K.,” she said. “And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.”
Russia wasted little time in responding. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called May’s statement a “circus act.”
May’s announcement comes less than a week before Russians go to vote in an election that will be almost certainly grant Vladimir Putin a fourth term as president. When asked if his country was to blame for the poisoning, Putin told the BBC: “Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this.”
At stake for the U.K. is how much it is willing to alienate Russia, whose rich own property in London. The country is detaching from the European Union and the world could be on the brink of a trade war should U.S. President Donald Trump push ahead with steel tariffs.
Hitting back at Putin, whose struck an air of increase defiance with the annexation of Crimea and incursions in Syria, will require careful geopolitical consideration. Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged May to seek the support of allies, including the EU and NATO: “This, if not an act of war, was certainly a warlike act.”
May said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had summoned Russia’s ambassador and asked him “to explain which of these two possibilities it is — and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr. Skripal and his daughter.”
The two victims of the attack were found unconscious in Salisbury, southwest of London, after coming into contact with what police later identified as a nerve agent. They remain in hospital. A police officer who arrived early on the scene was also hospitalized in a serious condition.
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