Yesterday, British prime minister Theresa May said that Russia had 24 hours to respond to accusations that it had poisoned a former spy in Salisbury using an extremely rare nerve agent. But today, Russia’s foreign minister said that it would not cooperate without getting samples of the nerve agent.
“Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention,” said Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, at a press conference today.
Lavrov insisted that he had yet to receive a formal complaint from the UK and that Russia would be happy to help with any investigation if it were provided with samples of the nerve agent. Even without any such samples, however, Russia solidly refuted the British prime minister’s conclusion. “Russia is not responsible,” Lavrov said.
The poison is classified in a family of nerve agents called Novichok and is believed to have been used to incapacitate former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this month. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was arrested by the Kremlin for spying in 2006 and was released in a prisoner exchange in 2010. He’s been living in Britain ever since.
Skripal, his daughter, and the first police officer on the scene are all still in critical condition.
Theresa May delivered a harsh rebuke of Russia in parliament on Monday, accusing the country of using a chemical weapon against Skripal and stating that there would be some kind of response soon.
“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,” said May.
“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.”
So what does a British response look like? That’s very unclear at this point. Britain could do anything from expel Russian diplomats in the country to sanction Russian state media such as RT. Tough financial sanctions against Russia are also on the table and the most extreme response could involve putting more troops in Russia’s neighbouring countries such as Estonia. But nobody knows for sure yet precisely what route the UK will choose.
For its part, the White House has been pretty quiet when it comes to the poisoning story. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders expressed solidarity with the UK yesterday, but refused to utter the word “Russia”.
“We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, take it very seriously,” Sanders said. “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation.”
“So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this then?” asked White House reporter Zeke Miller.
“Right now we are standing with our UK ally,” Sanders said. “I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that. We are going to continue to work with the UK.”