Allies back UK to condemn Russia over Salisbury nerve agent attack

Statement by UK, US, Germany and France ramps up rhetoric against Moscow, with Russia expected to retaliate over expulsion of diplomats

International pressure on Russia following the Salisbury nerve agent attack has been strongly ratcheted up, with Britain, the US, France and Germany jointly condemning an “assault on UK sovereignty”, as Washington boosted its own sanctions on Moscow.

With Russia still promising retaliation to the expulsion of 23 of its diplomats from the UK, Theresa May’s frantic telephone diplomacy in the wake of the attack seemed to have coalesced the UK’s allies into a united response.

The joint statement from May, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel dispensed with any earlier equivocation to say there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, other than Russian action.

It said the Salisbury attack came amid “a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behaviour”. This message was reinforced hours later as the US increased sanctions over Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and accused Russia of a cyber-attack against its energy grid and other infrastructure.

US officials said malware had been found in the operating systems of several organisations and companies in the US energy, nuclear, water and “critical manufacturing” sectors, with the attacks allegedly traced to Moscow.

The statement – described by Downing Street as the first time the leaders of the four nations had spoken together in such a way – marked a toughening of the rhetoric against Moscow, which continued to insist it had nothing to do with the attack.

The leaders said they “abhorred” the Salisbury incident, and the involvement of the Russian-made novichok “constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war”.

“It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law,” their statement said.

Nerve agents are not hard to make in principle, but in practice it takes specialised facilities and training to mix the substances safely. The raw materials themselves are inexpensive and generally not hard to obtain, but the lethality of the agents means they tend to be manufactured in dedicated labs. The main five nerve agents are tabun, which is the easiest to make, sarin, soman, GF and VX. The latter was used to kill Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport last year. VX is particularly stable and can remain on clothing, furniture and the ground for a long time without proper decontamination.

All pure nerve agents are colourless organophosphorus liquids which, after they were discovered to be highly poisonous in the 1930s, became the dominant chemical weapons of the second world war. Once made, the substances are easy to disperse, highly toxic, and have rapid effects. Most are absorbed swiftly through the skin or inhaled, but they can also be added to food and drink.

The agents take their toll on the body by disrupting electrical signals throughout the nervous system and the effects are fast and dramatic. Victims find it increasingly hard to breathe. Their lungs produce more mucus which can make them cough and foam at the mouth. They sweat, their pupils constrict, and their eyes run. The effects on the digestive system trigger vomiting. Meanwhile the muscles convulse. Many of those affected will wet themselves and lose control of their bowels. At high doses, failure of the nerves and muscles of the respiratory system can kill before other symptoms have time to develop. There are antidotes for nerve agents, such as oxime and atropine, which are particularly effective against VX and sarin, but they should be given soon after exposure to be effective.

The UK had “thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack”, the statement said, adding: “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 joint response followed calls between May and the three other leaders in the days since the attack. They included a talk with Macron on Thursday morning, a day after the French president’s spokesman had warned the UK against what he called “fantasy politics”, prompting concerns in No 10 that Macron might hold back on attributing blame.

After the statement was released, Trump told reporters: “It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen, and we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”

May spent some of the Thursday visiting Salisbury, where she met DS Nick Bailey, who became seriously ill after going to the aid of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.She did not meet the two Russian victims, who remain in a critical condition.

May said the four countries were “very clear in attributing this act to Russia”. The statement showed that “allies are standing alongside us and saying this is part of a pattern of activity that we have seen from Russia,” she said.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, used a speech in Bristol to accuse Russia of “ripping up the international rulebook” through actions aimed at subverting other countries. The Salisbury attack was “atrocious and outrageous,” Williamson said.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said the evidence against Russia was “overwhelming”. He told the BBC: “There is something in the kind of smug, sarcastic response that we’ve heard that indicates their fundamental guilt. They want to simultaneously deny it, yet at the same time to glory in it.”

While Johnson reiterated Britain’s plan to not send any dignitaries to this summer’s World Cup in Russia, he said the England team should take part.Johnson said the UK would provide samples of the nerve agent to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based at The Hague, for more tests.

Johnson also drew a connection between the Salisbury attack and the Syrian civil war, pointing to the way Russia had repeatedly protected the Assad regime from UN punishment over the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Successive UN inquiries found Assad’s troops had deployed chemical weapons, but the findings were vetoed by Russia.

Writing in the Washington Post, Johnson said: “The common thread that joins the poisonings in Salisbury with the annexation of Crimea, the cyber-attacks in Ukraine, the hacking of Germany’s parliament and Russian interference in foreign elections is the Kremlin’s reckless defiance of essential international rules.”

With Russia expected to expel UK diplomats as part of retaliatory counter-measures, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, denied that novichok, the nerve agent identified as used in Salisbury, was of Russian origin.

Along with the cybersecurity alert, the US treasury announced new sanctions against Russian individuals and entities – including the FSB and GRU intelligence agencies – as well as the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg.

As a result of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, US officials said that thousands of Russian-planted stories reached millions of people on the internet.

The new sanctions represent the broadest set of US punitive measures against Russia since the start of the Trump administration, and many of their targets are the same as those identified by an indictment by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.


Peter Walker, Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill

The GuardianTramp

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