Russia demands access to British investigation into nerve agent attack

Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 6:10 AM

Matthew Bodner

Special to The Washington Post.

MOSCOW - Russia’s foreign minister demanded Tuesday access to samples of a nerve agent that British investigators suspect was linked to Moscow in an attack against a former Russian double agent and his daughter.

The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, also said Russia does not intend to comply with British Prime Minister Theresa May’s demand for an official explanation on the claims over the nerve agent, later identified as Novichok, which is believed developed by the former Soviet Union.

Lavrov insisted that Russian experts should be able to examine the British evidence, but against denied Russian involvement in last week’s attack.

On Monday, May challenged Russia to provide an official explanation for the alleged use of a deadly nerve agent in the attempted murder of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the town of Salisbury. Both remain in a coma.

May claimed the chemical, which is believed to be unique to Russia, made Moscow’s complicity “highly likely.”

According to the Interfax news agency, Lavrov denied that Russia had anything to do with Skripal’s poisoning and reiterated Moscow’s willingness to cooperate if information related to the nature of the chemical agent was shared with Russia.

Lavrov claimed Britain has an obligation to share forensic data under the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia also summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, following the allegations, Interfax reported.

“Before delivering ultimatums to report to the British government within 24 hours,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow, “it is better to comply with your own obligations under international law - in this case the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.”

Earlier, Russia’s Foreign Ministry and pro-Kremlin lawmakers derided Britain on Tuesday amid a deepening showdown.

May said Russia either engaged in a direct attack against Britain or lost control of the nerve agent it developed. Britain will not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” she warned.

The British leader stopped short of announcing retaliatory actions, saying she would give Russia a chance to respond to her government’s findings and would return to Parliament on Wednesday with a plan for specific action.

But in her remarks, May described a “reckless” and “indiscriminate” attack against Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33. A police officer also remains hospitalized.

On the Russian Foreign Ministry’s verified Twitter account, the posts carried a characteristically flippant and sarcastic tone. It launched a hashtag, #VeryLikelyRussia, and portray May’s ultimatum as part of a broader anti-Russian hysteria plaguing Western discourse.

“Sincere thanks to Mrs May for #VeryLikelyRussia,” a tweet read.

The post included a video of recent intense snowfall in Britain, mockingly suggesting that Russia was to blame for the weather. The video concludes with an image of a penguin, and signs off with “ ... at least penguin enjoys it.”

Other Foreign Ministry accounts, such as one belonging to Russia’s embassy in South Africa, struck similar notes.

Meanwhile, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber of parliament, wrote on Facebook that May’s accusations were “despicable and unacceptable.”

“For Britain, the Queen of Courts, this is a complete degradation,” Kosachev wrote, “the accused has to provide the proof, not the court or the prosecutor, without being given access either to the evidence or the trial itself.”

While most of the reactions have so far avoided the topic of Novichok, the nerve agent identified by May in the poisoning of the Skripals, other members of Russia’s Federation Council took a swing at debunking those accusations head on.

Sen. Igor Morozov, a veteran of the Russian security services, told the RIA Novosti news agency that “Russia has not only stopped producing nerve agents, including Novichok, but also completely destroyed all of its stockpiles.”

However, he also said that it would be “dangerous but possible” to secretly produce Novichok, but would require special facilities and technicians.

Last year, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced the destruction of Russia’s final batch of declared chemical weapons. However, Russian scientists who blew the whistle on Novichok’s existence in 1992 claimed at the time that the nerve agent was designed specifically to skirt chemical weapons conventions.

In Washington, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the nerve agent “clearly came from Russia” and warned of consequences.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson added Tuesday that he was encouraged by support from allies.

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