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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Western leaders unite to condemn Russia over spy attack

Russia faces demands to open up about its nerve agent programme by the leaders of the UK, US, Germany and France

British Prime Minister Theresa May stands outside The Mill pub during a visit to the city where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May stands outside The Mill pub during a visit to the city where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The leaders of Britain, Germany, France and the US united on Thursday to blame Russia for a chemical attack on a former spy and warned that its use of military grade nerve agent posed a threat to Western security.

The rare joint statement from the four leaders said there was no “plausible alternative explanation” for the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Theresa May, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump said that the first offensive use of a nerve agent on European soil since the Second World War “threatens the security of us all”. They called on Russia to provide “full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

“We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation and note that Russia´s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility,” according to the statement.

“We call on Russia to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council to uphold international peace and security.”

The statement came amid speculation that France was wobbling in its support after Britain pointedly blamed Russia for the poisoning of Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33. They both remain critically ill.

Meanwhile, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said it would respond soon and suggested that the UK was blaming Moscow to distract public attention from the country’s difficult negotiations over its departure from the European Union.

Analysts said on Wednesday that one reason for the attack would have been to try to isolate the UK, which has been hawkish in its criticisms of Russia and has been forceful in championing European Union sanctions against Moscow over its role in destabilising Ukraine.

The statement was also a riposte to the Kremlin which described the UK’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday as “insane”.

Britain said Thursday that the attack was a thinly veiled warning to dissidents previously involved in spying on Russia that no-one was safe from Moscow-backed assassins. “There is a reason for choosing Novichok,” said Boris Johnson, the UK’s foreign secretary. “In its blatant Russian-ness, the nerve agent sends a signal to all who may be thinking of dissent in the intensifying repression of Putin’s Russia.

“The message is clear: We will find you, we will catch you, we will kill you — and though we will deny it with lip-curling scorn, the world will know beyond doubt that Russia did it.”

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The attack was unlikely to have been carried out by rogue elements within the Russian regime without the connivance of senior figures, according to analysts from the Royal United Services Institute.

“Tearing up the rule book, making themselves unpredictable, being able to hit targets just below the threshold of war is the strategy for the future,” said Jonathan Eyal, its international director.

The joint statement came as the US sanctioned 19 people and five groups over meddling in the US presidential elections of 2016 and in malicious cyber-attacks, according to the Treasury Department.

Mrs May visited Salisbury on Thursday as Britain kept up a verbal offensive against Russia. “"We do hold Russia culpable for this brazen and despicable act that has taken place on the streets of what is such a remarkable city,” said the prime minister after visiting the site where Mr Skripal and his daughter were found.

The UK’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson went further in suggesting that Russia should “shut up” after the government said it had responded to requests for information about its Novichok stocks with “sarcasm” and “disdain”.

London’s Russian embassy mocked the diplomatic expulsion, the largest by a British government for 31 years, on its Twitter feed.

“What we will do is look at how Russia responds to what we have done… Russia should go away, it should shut up,” said Mr Williamson.

The defence secretary announced that thousands of British soldiers are to receive the anthrax vaccine in response to the poisoning in Salisbury. The move is one of a range of security measures and includes plans for a new £48 million chemical weapons defence centre.

The UK has not asked for specific help from Nato, the head of the 29-member alliance said on Thursday.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general, said he saw no need to activate the alliance’s Article 5 which rallies all member nations to the aid of an ally under attack. It has only ever been used once by the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Mr Stoltenberg said the attack was “a blatant and serious violation of norms and rules that are important for the security of all of us” that was a part of a “reckless pattern of Russian behaviour over many years."