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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

May rallies international support for action against Russia in wake of spy poisoning

The UK government has set Russia a deadline of midnight to explain its involvement

Theresa May has been attempting to rally international support for a response to Russia's attempted poisoning of a double-agent in Salisbury
Theresa May has been attempting to rally international support for a response to Russia's attempted poisoning of a double-agent in Salisbury

Prime Minister Theresa May was scrambling to garner international support for a robust response to Russia on Tuesday as the deadline for Russia to explain its role in the poisoning of a double agent neared.

But efforts to get the US onside stumbled as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sacked just hours after issuing a strongly worded statement in support of UK efforts. President Donald Trump spoke with Mrs May late on Tuesday and said “the United States stands in solidarity with its closest ally and is ready to provide any assistance the United Kingdom requests for its investigation”.

He agreed “that the [Russian government] must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom”.

Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow on the Russian and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, said: “The deadline meant Russia dodged a bullet until tomorrow when it is supposed to come up with a response. It also gives respite to the UK to garner support for a robust response.”

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Positive overtures were forthcoming from Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who emphasised Nato's support for the UK. “The use of any nerve agent is horrendous and completely unacceptable. The UK is a highly valued ally, and this incident is of great concern to Nato. Nato is in touch with the UK authorities on this issue," he said.

But with Mrs May not due to announce concrete measures until tomorrow after the deadline has expired, there was little in the way of material support. She did find support from European and EU states, in spite of strained relations over Brexit.

In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, Mrs May and the French leader “agreed that the French and British governments should co-ordinate closely as the investigation developed and following Russia’s response”.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also offered France’s solidarity, and the government stressed its concerns about Russia’s use of chemical weapons elsewhere, such as in Syria.

In Germany, Norbert Roettgen, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: “The discovery of a Russian military substance means that Russia cannot refuse co-operation in the clearing up of this matter. If Russia does not co-operate, there must be a joint Western response.”

Mr Boulegue said that while there might be appetite for a strong response, it remains to be seen whether or not current political divides would be overcome. “France and Germany are the strongest supporters for a harsh response against the UK concerning Brexit, but would also be the strongest proponents for further sanctions against Russia.

“It’s a question of whether it will it go beyond simple politics, and garner greater unity, or will things just fall back on the default political fault lines.”

There were some signs that Brexit lines may be overcome, as European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said “it is of the utmost importance that those who are responsible for what has happened see very clearly that there is European solidarity – unequivocal, unwavering and very strong.”

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