Britain appeared headed for a showdown with Russia on March 14 after a midnight deadline London set expired without an explanation from Moscow about how a nerve agent developed during the Cold War was used to poison a former Russian spy.
The United States, European Union, and NATO all said they supported Britain after Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with Novichok, a deadly nerve agent developed by the Soviet military.
Russia vehemently denied any involvement and said it would not respond to May’s ultimatum until it receives samples of the suspected toxin.
“Moscow will not respond to London’s ultimatum until it receives samples of the chemical substance,” Russia’s embassy in London said late on May 13. “Any threat to take punitive measures against Russia will meet with a response.”
British police, meanwhile, said the probe into the March 4 poisoning of the Skripals will last many weeks and that they are not ready to identify any persons of interest in the inquiry. The two remained in critical condition in a hospital in the southern English city of Salisbury.
The White House joined Britain in calling on Russia to provide “unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom,” after a phone call between May and U.S. President Donald Trump on March 13.
“The two leaders agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms,” it said.
May gave Moscow a deadline of midnight March 13 to explain how the rare nerve agent made its way to England. She said she is reviewing a range of economic and diplomatic measures in retaliation for the assault.
May is due to host a meeting of her national security council early on March 14.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that his country’s requests to see samples of the nerve agent have been turned down. He insisted that Russia is “not to blame” for the poisoning.
“We have already made a statement to say this is nonsense,” he said. “We have nothing to do with this.”
Britain’s ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that Russia had failed to declare its full stockpile of nerve agents to the global oversight body.
Peter Wilson told reporters that Russia, which President Vladimir Putin said in 2017 had destroyed all its chemical weapons under OPCW supervision, has in fact “failed for many years” to fully disclose its chemical weapons program.
Wilson repeated assertions by the British government that Russia was “implicated” in the attack and demanded that Moscow now declare its undisclosed program.
Meanwhile, British broadcasting regulator Ofcom has warned it could review the license of Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT.
Ofcom said it had written to ANO TV Novosti, which holds RT’s British broadcast licenses, saying that if Moscow is found to be behind the attack, “we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper.”
In response to Ofcom’s statement, Moscow threatened on March 13 to bar all British media from working in Russia if British authorities ban RT.
“No British media will work in Russia if they close down RT,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Also on March 13, the chief of the OPCW said it is “extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used to harm people.”
“Those found responsible for this use must be held accountable for their actions,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a speech to the group’s executive council.
Uzumcu said that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called him on March 12 to inform him of the results of investigations into the attack on Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia.
Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence colonel, was convicted by a Moscow military court in 2006 of “high treason” for passing secrets to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents detained in the United States in one of the biggest spy scandals since the Cold War.
With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters