EU backs UK in blaming Russia for ex-spy attack
European Union leaders said it’s “highly likely” that Moscow was behind the nerve agent poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter in Salisbury, UK
European Union leaders backed Britain on Thursday in blaming Moscow over a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in England, raising the possibility of additional retaliatory steps by European countries.
The chairman of the EU leaders' summit, Donald Tusk, said on Twitter that the bloc "agrees with UK government that [it is] highly likely Russia is responsible for the Salisbury attack and that there is no other plausible explanation".
In a statement following a dinner in Brussels, the European Council added: "We stand in unqualified solidarity with the United Kingdom in the face of this grave challenge to our shared security."
The solid show of support from the EU, at a time when Britain is grappling with its departure from the bloc, will boost Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been asking other nations to match her decision to expel Russians over the attack.
Mrs May accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were found unconscious in the city of Salisbury on March 4.
The attack has sparked tit-for-tat retaliatory action, with Mrs May's decision to expel 23 Russian "undeclared intelligence officials" followed by similar measures from Moscow, including the closure of Britain's cultural centre in Russia's second city of St Petersburg.
Over dinner, Mrs May called on EU leaders to work together to confront the challenge Russia presented, saying that the attack in Salisbury was "part of a wider pattern of behaviour" by a country to thwart international norms.
"Russia staged a brazen and reckless attack against the United Kingdom," Mrs May told reporters in Brussels. "It's clear that the Russian threat does not respect borders and indeed the incident in Salisbury was a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours."
In the early days after the attack, Mrs May won the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump when they said they shared Britain's assessment of Russian culpability.
But in Brussels, Mrs May had to convince more dovish states including Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria, that they should blame Russia squarely over the attack.
Mr Tusk's statement means they had been convinced, opening the way for EU leaders to discuss future "coordinated action". Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies and diplomats said Poland could do so too.
Both had held off to see who else would join.
Slovakia's new prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, said he wanted "constructive dialogue" with Russia despite the poisoning of the Skripals, who British authorities say have been critically ill since the attack by a Soviet-designed, military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.
Mrs May has also asked fellow European leaders to step up intelligence cooperation to start going after Russian spy networks, diplomats said.
"Britain says there are these networks that organise such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders and that it would be good to go after them together," a senior EU diplomat said.
Another diplomat said: "There is movement among several willing states to do something together in reaction to Skripal." The person added this would be done by states individually, so as not to press more reluctant EU member states too hard.
Russia has offered several different motives to explain the attack on the Skripals, who may have been left brain-damaged, and absolve Moscow of responsibility - something London labels disinformation and distraction.
On Thursday, Moscow's ambassador to London, Vladimir Yakovenko, said that, had Novichok been used, the Skripals would have died and he rebuked British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for comparing Russia's hosting of the soccer World Cup this summer with Nazi Germany's hosting of the Olympics in 1936.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin discussed Britain's "unfriendly and provocative" policy at a session of the national security council, RIA news agency quoted the Kremlin as saying.
Ties between Russia and the West plummeted over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Both have triggered rounds of EU sanctions.
A British official stressed that Britain was not seeking regime change in Russia, but that "Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner".
Updated: March 23, 2018 03:44 AM