Britain’s foreign secretary accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering a nerve agent attack in Britain, ratcheting up tensions Friday in an increasingly global showdown over alleged Russian meddling abroad.
While Britain has accused the Russian state of ordering the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took it a step further, declaring it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin himself ordered the attack. Putin’s spokesman denounced the claim as “shocking and inexcusable.”
Geopolitical tensions have been mounting since the poisoning of double agent Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4, in what Western powers see as the latest sign of aggressive Russian interference in foreign countries. The tensions are set against a backdrop of Putin’s expected reelection Sunday for another sixyear presidential term.
Deepening the diplomatic fall-out, British police yesterday confirmed they launched a murder probe into the death of another Russian exile, Nikolai Glushkov, in London, after a post-mortem found he died from “compression to the neck.”
“A murder investigation has been launched following the results of a post-mortem into the death of 68-year-old Russian businessman Nikolay Glushkov,” the Metropolitan Police said in a statement.
The retired Russian executive was found dead on Monday evening at his home in southwest London, where he had lived for two years.
Glushkov had received political asylum in Britain after being jailed in Russia for money-laundering and fraud. He was linked to late Kremlin opponent Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch and one-time supporter of Putin, who was found hanged in his home outside London in 2013.
The coroner’s report proved inconclusive, but Berezovsky’s death is now one of a number being re-examined by British authorities. A total of 14 deaths are being re-considered include those of a Russian oligarch, a British spy found in a bag, and Russians whose deaths remain unexplained. News website BuzzFeed claimed US intelligence suspects the 14 deaths were hits by Moscow or the Russian mafia.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd on Tuesday said that police and MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, would assist in examining allegations of potential Russian involvement in the deaths.
British officials have pushed back strongly in diplomatic circles, in the wake of Skripal’s death, securing the support of their major allies.
Australia yesterday joined the condemnation of the nerve agent attack, as British Prime Minister Theresa May seeks a global coalition of countries to punish Moscow. The United States, France and Germany have already lined up against Russia on this attack, and top EU diplomats may discuss next steps at a meeting Monday.
Russia ordered a halt to highlevel meetings with the UK and prepared yesterday to expel British diplomats in retaliation for similar British moves — but still hasn’t said who will be kicked out or when. Britain is expelling 23 Russian diplomats and taking other steps against Russian interests as the two nations’ relations sink to a post-Cold War low.
In a rare joint statement on Thursday, May and US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “there is no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility for the poisoning. “This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” the leaders said, calling it “an assault on UK sovereignty” and “a breach of international law.”
Trump, who has often been reluctant to criticise Putin, said it “certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.”
The source of the nerve agent used — which Britain says is the Soviet-made Novichok — is unclear, as is the way it was administered. Russia denies being the source of the poison, suggesting it could have been another country, and has demanded that Britain share samples collected by investigators.
Russia said yesterday it has opened its own committee-led probe into Skripal’s death.
The global chemical weapons watchdog says the class of nerve agents used in the Skripal attack has never been declared by any of its member states. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also says it expects action soon in response to the British investigation.
Russia’s envoy at the OPCW has claimed the substance used could have come from either US or British stockpiles. Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s envoy at the Hague-based OPCW, said that Britain and the United States both had the nerve agent.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the British Army’s chemical and biological weapons regiment, called that Russian claim “complete hogwash.”
Bretton-Gordon said it was unlikely that some of the nerve agent could have gone missing in the years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He also cast doubt on the possibilities that the nerve agent was sent through the mail or was placed in luggage that Skripal’s daughter brought with her from Russia to Britain.
In a bizarre statement yesterday, Russia’s Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said that there are antidotes to all poisonous substances, including nerve agents of the class believed to have poisoned a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain.
The war of words between Moscow and London continued yesterday, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashing back after British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Russia “should go away and shut up.”
“Perhaps he lacks education,” Lavrov told a press conference after talks on Syria’s war with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts.
Adding to the diplomatic pressure, the US imposed sanctions on 19 Russians, accusing them of interference in the 2016 US election and alleged cyberattacks. They include 13 individuals charged last month by Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller.