Russia rejects British ultimatum on ex-double agent's poisoning

Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 7:41 AM

Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov

(c) 2018, Bloomberg.

Russia rejected a British ultimatum to come clean over a suspected chemical weapon attack on its former double agent in the U.K. as it braced for threatened reprisals.

“This is all nonsense, we’ve got nothing to do with this,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. “Before issuing ultimatums to report to the British government within 24 hours, it would have been better to observe your obligations under international law.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a dramatic statement Monday to Parliament, said that ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned just over a week ago with a “military grade” nerve agent known as “Novichok” that was developed in the Soviet Union. She gave Russian President Vladimir Putin until midnight Tuesday to respond to the charges or face retaliation.

The crisis over the attempted murder, which comes just days before Sunday’s elections in which Putin is coasting toward a fourth term, threatens to further strain relations between Russia and the West. The U.K. has been rallying support for punitive measures among its allies in Europe and the U.S. but with mixed results so far.

Russia expects diplomatic expulsions, though more drastic measures such as cutting Russian banks off from the Swift payment system are seen as unlikely, one person close to the Kremlin said.

Lavrov called on the U.K. to provide Russia samples of the poison and full access to the investigation.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday branded Russia an “irresponsible force of instability in the world” and said those who ordered and carried out the crime must face consequences. Less than 24 hours later, President Donald Trump announced in a tweet that Tillerson had been removed from his post, to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Tensions are also flaring as the U.S. threatens to take action in Syria, where Russian ally Bashar al-Assad is pursuing a bloody offensive against a rebel-held bastion outside the capital Damascus in defiance of international calls for a humanitarian cease-fire.

Skripal, 66, who was found unconscious March 4 with his 33-year-old daughter, on a bench in Salisbury, western England, spied for the U.K. for a decade while working for Russian military intelligence. He was sent to Britain in 2010 in a spy swap.

In a state-television documentary released Sunday, Putin said he can never forgive treachery. In 2010, a few months after Skripal was released from a prison sentence, the Russian leader warned of retribution for those who betray their country.

“Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me. You’re talking about a person who betrayed their friends, their comrades-in-arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them,” Putin said.

Russia destroyed its last chemical stocks last year. But experts say the individual components needed to make Novichok aren’t in violation of an international ban on chemical weapons that Russia signed.

“Which country could one possibly imagine has the desire to poison a former military intelligence officer turned British agent? Russia seems to be the only one that has the motive, means and opportunity,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security issues, who’s a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said by phone.

“This has come from the top and been approved from the top,” he said.

--With assistance from Tim Ross Robert Hutton Alex Morales Irina Reznik and Evgenia Pismennaya

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