Theresa May has given Vladimir Putin’s administration until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a former spy was poisoned in Salisbury, otherwise she will conclude it was an “unlawful use of force” by the Russian state against the UK.
After chairing a meeting of the national security council, the prime minister told MPs that it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. She warned that Britain would not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil”.
In a statement to the House of Commons that triggered an angry response from Moscow, the prime minister said the evidence had shown that Skripal had been targeted by a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia”. Describing the incident as an “indiscriminate and reckless act”, she said that the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had summoned the Russian ambassador to Whitehall and demanded an explanation by the end of Tuesday.
Russian officials immediately hit back, with Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign minister, calling the remarks “a provocation” and describing the event as a “circus show in the British parliament”.
Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian member of parliament who stands accused of the 2006 murder of the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, said May’s decision to point the finger at Moscow so quickly was “at a minimum irresponsible”.Quick guide
What is novichok?
Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.
“Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”
The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.
And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.
The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.
The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.
The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.
Ministers on the national security council were told that the nerve agent used was from a family of substances known as Novichok. “Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” she said.The prime minister said that left just two plausible explanations “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
May made clear that she believed there was already “a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” – listing the illegal annexation of Crimea, violating European airspace and a “sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption”, including “meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag, among many others”. She also spoke of the extrajudicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia and the murder of Litvinenko.
The home secretary, Amber Rudd, will chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee in Whitehall at 11.30am on Tuesday to discuss the latest developments in the investigation.
May said the government would consider Russia’s response on Wednesday. “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 United Kingdom,” she said, promising to return to the house with a full range of retaliatory measures.
“This attempted murder, using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town, was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”
The tough statement means that a major diplomatic row is looming between Moscow and London, with expulsions on both sides highly likely. Russia’s hardline ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, may well be sent home.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, responded by saying the whole house condemned the “deeply alarming attack” and that a full account was needed from Russian authorities.
However, he warned against a full breakdown of communications with Moscow. “We need to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and potentially even more dangerous,” he said.
Corbyn then began a political attack on the Conservatives, after reports that the party had accepted donations of more than £820,000 from Russian oligarchs since May took over the leadership. He asked why the government had not accepted a Labour-led amendment to the sanctions and anti-money laundering bill that would pave the way for so-called Magnitsky powers to punish human rights abuses with asset freezes and other measures.
May responded that her government’s simple approach to Moscow was: “Engage but beware.” Referring to her previous comments on on Russian interference in elections, she said: “There can be no question of business as usual with Russia.”
On the Magnitsky powers, she insisted that the UK was already able to take tough action against individuals, but did promise to try to reach agreement over the amendment.
In 2007, Gordon Brown kicked out four Russian diplomats in protest at Vladimir Putin’s refusal to extradite Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, the two assassins who put polonium into Alexander Litvinenko’s tea. The Russian foreign ministry expelled four British diplomats in response.
On this occasion, Putin is likely to react badly to May’s ultimatum. The UK’s ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow – the deputy ambassador at the time of Litvinenko’s murder – is vulnerable.
Additionally, the Kremlin may take action against the BBC. When relations plummeted over Litvinenko, Moscow closed the St Petersburg office of the British Council and accused its director, Stephen Kinnock – now a Labour MP – of drink-driving.
The use of Novichok – a deadly nerve agent developed in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet Union – will be seen as a brutal calling card. It was inevitable that the poison would be discovered, with a trail leading straight back to Moscow.
The attack came two weeks before Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. The calculation may be that the Skripal case galvanises Putin’s conservative base and boosts votes.
The reaction of backbench MPs to May’s statement was largely supportive on all sides of the house. The Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, said the Salisbury attack was “if not an act of war … certainly a warlike act by the Russian federation”.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who chairs the home affairs committee, said it was hard to see any alternative to the prime minister’s “very grave conclusion”, but asked if any action had been taken to review 14 other cases that she had raised.
A number of backbench MPs criticised Corbyn for failing to speak out more strongly in the face of what they described as a national security threat. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said the prime minister had risen to the occasion, but that colleagues would be disappointed by the Labour leader’s partisan attack. His Conservative colleague, Johnny Mercer, described the opposition response as a “shameful moment”. Others argued that the time for dialogue with Moscow had run out.
In a barbed attack on Corbyn, the Labour MP John Woodcock – a longtime critic of his party leader – welcomed the resilience of May and said the UK would face a national security threat if led by “anyone who did not understand the gravity of the threat which Russia poses”.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is planning to accelerate and expand its cyber-offensive capability over the next five years in response to the present crisis with Russia, according to Whitehall sources.
The aim is to increase the UK’s ability to strike back against selected targets in Russia and other states regarded as hostile, such as China, North Korea and Iran.
The MoD is also, in the wake of Salisbury, planning to spend more on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) defence. The move is an acknowledgement that it has paid inadequate attention to the increased danger.
May won strong support for her position from international allies. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said whoever had ordered the attack must face serious consequences.
He said: “We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week. There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behaviour.
“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.”
Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “The United Kingdom has concluded that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. And prime minister Theresa May stated today that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act. 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.”