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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

With no answers from Moscow, Britain weighs measures against Russia

Trump says US is with the UK "all the way"

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Tiksa Negeri / Reuters
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Tiksa Negeri / Reuters

Britain’s midnight ultimatum for Russia to come clean over the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal was set to go unanswered Tuesday, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissing claims of Russian involvement as "rubbish" and demanding samples of the chemical weapon.

Mr Lavrov played for time rather than bow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s deadline, insisting that the UK is obligated to give Moscow access to the substance under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

"On these absolutely legitimate demands... we received a gibberish response," Mr Lavrov told reporters.

The lack of agreement has left Britain to consider imposing measures against Russia.

"I don't believe Russia will come up with a nice little file…. Things don't work like that," Chatham House Russia and Eurasia research fellow, Mathieu Boulègue, said in an interview.

So far, condemnations - from now fired US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, as well as France and Germany's foreign ministers - have not been followed by penalties against Moscow. President Donald Trump told Mrs May late on Tuesday that the US was with the UK "all the way" and that Moscow must provide "unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used," a Downing Street spokesman said.

Britain's government has been holding emergency meetings to weigh how best to respond to the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, Wiltshire, with a Russian-made military grade nerve agent known as Novichok.

Separately, counter-terrorism police in southwest London said on Tuesday they were investigating the "unexplained" death of another Russian man - identified by the media as Nikolai Glushkov, an exiled businessman and critic of Vladimir Putin - but police said there was no connection so far to the Salisbury poisonings.

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Read more:

Britain’s May says it’s ‘highly likely’ Russia poisoned Sergei Skripal

What is Novichok, the nerve agent believed to have been used against Sergei Skripal?

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Mr Boulègue said the UK could choose largely symbolic actions – kicking out Russian diplomats, revoking state media licences, or reducing the diplomatic footprint of the UK in Russia. At the other end of the spectrum, Mrs May could pursue economic measures including investigating the origins of Russian money invested in the City of London or in British property.

Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny tweeted advice to Mrs May, naming three oligarchs that she could target for asset seizures or sanctions.

Marina Litvinenko, widow of poisoned former Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko, also called on Mrs May to consider financial sanctions against wealthy Russians in the UK.

"People from Russia have been buying property, bringing their children over and enjoying their life but it’s very important to understand where this money is from," she said. "I want [Mrs May] to send a message to Russia and not against the Russian people. It’s not about putting people in a more difficult situation, it’s about who stole their own money and used it in the UK and Europe.”

While the PM could extend financial and travel sanctions against Russian individuals, some questioned whether they would work.

“Russia is learning to live around the sanctions … so in a way they have sort of become the new normal," Mr Boulègue added.

May has warned that if there was no "credible response" from Russia by the end of Tuesday, the UK would conclude there has been an "unlawful use of force" by Moscow. Her use of the term led some to wonder if she would try to refer Russia to the International Criminal Court, although that would require evidence of Kremlin involvement. Russia could veto that motion at the UN Security Council.

Conservative minister Dominic Raab said sanctions could be wide-ranging but played down the involvement of Nato, telling the BBC that Mrs May "chose her words very carefully" when she used the term "unlawful use of force, which has a different meaning in international law to an armed attack ... I don't think we're down the territory you're discussing there."

Former UK national security adviser, Lord Peter Ricketts, has said that suggestions the UK or its officials could boycott the World Cup in Russia in the coming months was “not going to change the weather in Moscow”, but a coordinated decision to boycott by a number of nations could send a “powerful message”.

Mrs May has so far said only that the UK must "stand ready to take much more extensive measures" against Russia than Britain has considered in the past.

The National Security Council is expected to respond early Wednesday morning and May will make another statement to the House of Commons.

Mr Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was convicted of spying but released in a spy swap.