Britain’s allies point finger at Moscow over spy poisoning

Britain's PM Theresa May talks with Wiltshire Police's Chief Constable Kier Pritchard as she is shown the police tent covering the bench in Salisbury, southern England, on Mar. 15, 2018, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal was discovered. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2018

Britain’s allies point finger at Moscow over spy poisoning

LONDON: Britain and its allies on Thursday pointed the finger directly at Moscow over the poisoning of a Russian double agent, as the Kremlin vowed prompt retaliation against the “irresponsible” expulsion of its diplomats from London.
The escalating international scandal is unfolding as former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in critical condition after exposure to the Soviet-designed chemical Novichok on March 4 in the English city of Salisbury.
British Prime Minister Theresa May promised a “united stance” as she visited the scene of the attack for the first time on Thursday, a day after saying Moscow was “culpable” and expelling 23 Russian diplomats among other measures.
In a rare joint statement, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and the US condemned the attack as an “assault on UK sovereignty.”
“We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility,” the statement said.
The four leaders called on Russia to provide “full and complete disclosure” of the Soviet-era chemical program that developed Novichok, the statement published by the British government said.
Russia did not meet London’s demand that it disclose details of the Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) by midnight on Tuesday, leading May to announce the retaliatory measures.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Britain’s position “absolutely irresponsible.”
He warned that retaliatory steps would soon follow and President Vladimir Putin would choose the option that “most suits Moscow’s interests.”
Russia would respond by kicking out British diplomats, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying in Moscow, adding that it would happen “soon.”
He said Moscow did not have a motive to attack Skripal but suggested other players could use the poisoning to “complicate holding the World Cup” in Russia this year and charged that the British government is keen to “deflect attention” from its troubles with Brexit.
May’s statements that Moscow is behind the poisoning are “completely crazy accusations against Russia, our entire country, our people,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists.
Moscow has mostly shrugged off the measures announced by May, ridiculing the decision not to send British ministers and royals to the World Cup.
Zakharova further accused Britain of refusing to grant access to Yulia Skripal or work with Moscow through the OPCW and give Russia access to the poisonous substance.
However British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC that Britain is “entirely in conformity” with OPCW procedures and is sending a sample of the nerve agent to the watchdog for examination.
The US also told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that it believed Russia was responsible for the use of the military-grade nerve agent against Skripal.
NATO allies have branded the attack a “clear breach of international norms and agreements” and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it comes against the “backdrop of a pattern of reckless behavior” by Russia.
He said however that Britain had not invoked the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he would announce unspecified “measures” to respond to the poisoning in the coming days.
Johnson further appealed to international partners to “stand with us against Russia” in a Washington Post editorial, saying the poisoning is “part of a pattern of reckless behavior” by Putin showing “reckless defiance” of international rules.
He accused Moscow of using assassinations to send a signal to dissidents that “we will find you, we will catch you, we will kill you.”
Putin, who is standing in a presidential election Sunday, has not yet commented on Britain’s measures but discussed the Skripal situation with his security council Thursday. His spokesman said the poisoning row had no effect on the campaign.
Besides expelling the diplomats, the biggest such move in 30 years, suspending high-level contacts and cracking down on Russian criminals and dirty money, Britain will invest in a new chemical weapons defense center, said Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson.
The center will receive £48 million (54 million euros, $67 million) of investment and will be based at the existing Porton Down secretive base.
Russia argues that it has destroyed all of its chemical weapons and that its military chemical program has been shut down since the mid-1980s.
Russian chemist Vil Mirzayanov, who worked in the chemical weapons program until 1992 and had exposed the Novichok agents prior to leaving for the US, however, claimed Moscow had stored the substance and its authorities “are still keeping it in secrecy.”
Mirzayanov said Russia was likely behind the attack, though adding that it was also possible that somebody used the Novichok formula published in his book to synthesize the chemical.


Britain's Johnson puts Brexit deal to 'final' vote

Updated 41 min 43 sec ago

Britain's Johnson puts Brexit deal to 'final' vote

  • The House of Commons will hold its first vote on the bill at around 1800 GMT, followed by another vote on Johnson's timetable motion to rush it through parliament ahead of Brexit day

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces two crucial Brexit votes in parliament on Tuesday that will determine if he can fulfil his "do or die" promise to take Britain out of the European Union next week.
As MPs threatened to derail the ratification of his Brexit deal, Johnson warned that defeat would see him abandon the legislation -- and instead seek to call a snap election.
Britain is entering a cliffhanger finale to a drama sparked by the 2016 referendum vote on whether to leave the EU, which has plunged the country into three years of political turmoil.
Johnson was forced on Saturday to ask EU leaders to postpone the October 31 deadline for leaving -- something he once said he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than do.
He was required by law to send the letter after MPs refused to back the divorce deal he struck with Brussels last week, which paves the way for an orderly end to 46 years of integration.
However, he still has a chance of avoiding a delay if he can get legislation implementing the treaty through parliament by October 31.
The House of Commons will hold its first vote on the bill at around 1800 GMT, followed by another vote on Johnson's timetable motion to rush it through parliament ahead of Brexit day.
Opening the debate, Johnson urged MPs to support the legislation so "we can get Brexit done and move our country on".
He warned that if they failed, the "bill will have to be pulled... and we will have to go forward to a general election," adding: "I will argue at that election: let's get Brexit done."
Two previous attempts to call an election have failed, however.
"What on earth will the public think of us if this House again tonight votes not to get on with it, not to deliver Brexit on October 31 but to hand over control of what happens next to the EU?" the Conservative leader said.
Johnson warned defeat would kill any hope of leaving the EU with a deal on October 31, and risks a "no deal" exit if the EU declines to approve a third Brexit delay.
However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned the prime minister was trying to "blindside" parliament into supporting a substandard deal.
"A deal and a bill that fails to protect our rights and our natural world, fails to protect jobs and the economy, fails to protect every region and every nation in the UK," he said.
European Council President Donald Tusk said the other 27 EU leaders were mulling Johnson's request to delay Brexit, but it would depend on how MPs vote.
"It is obvious that the result of these consultations will very much depend on what the British parliament decides, or doesn't decide," he told the European Parliament.
"We should be ready for every scenario."
He added on Twitter: "I made clear to PM @BorisJohnson: a no-deal #Brexit will never be our decision."
MPs voted to demand Johnson delay Brexit to try to avoid the damage of a "no deal" exit, where Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no new plans in place.
The prime minister on Tuesday said that if they backed his bill, "we can de-escalate those no-deal preparations immediately".
The deal is the second of its kind, after a Brexit text agreed by his predecessor Theresa May was rejected three times by MPs earlier this year.
Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday that the bloc had "done all in our power" to assure an orderly divorce.
Even if Johnson wins the two votes on Tuesday evening, MPs could still derail his bill.
Some lawmakers want to secure much closer future trade relations with the EU after Brexit, seeking to amend the bill to demand Britain stay in the bloc's customs union.
After tens of thousands of people demonstrated in London on Saturday in favour of a second referendum, some MPs will also seek to attach plans for a "People's Vote" to the legislation.
If the Brexit withdrawal bill passes the Commons unscathed, it must still be approved by the unelected upper House of Lords -- and then the European Parliament.
The withdrawal deal covers EU citizens' rights, Britain's financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
But it only sets out the broad parameters for Britain's future ties with the EU, and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned this could be a much lengthier process.
"We will have to renegotiate for one year, two years, three years, maybe more in some areas, to rebuild all that will have been pulled apart by the desire of those backing Brexit," Barnier said.