Tensions escalated Thursday over the Salisbury chemical attack, with Russia’s foreign minister promising to hit back at U.K. sanctions and his British counterpart accusing Moscow of revelling in the attempted murders.
Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would soon expel British diplomats in retaliation to the raft of sanctions announced by the U.K. Wednesday, which included the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, cutting high-level ties and freezing assets, Russian state media reported.
Lavrov called the British government’s conclusion that Moscow had carried out the March 4 attack, in which a former Russian double agent and his daughter were contaminated with the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok, “absolutely boorish.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also went on the offensive, accusing Russia of glorying in the attack as a way of intimidating Vladimir Putin’s opponents.
“There is something in the kind of smug, sarcastic response that we’re heard from the Russians that to me betokens their fundamental guilt,” he told the BBC.
“They want to simultaneously deny it and yet at the same time to glory in it.”
He said the attack – using a Russian made nerve agent – was the Kremlin’s “way of saying to people this is what happens to people who stand up to our regime.”
“There is very little doubt in people’s minds that this is a signature act by the Russian state – deliberately using Novichok, a nerve agent developed by Russia to punish a Russian defector as they would see it, and in the run-up to Vladimir Putin’s election.”
The British government also announced Thursday that it planned to spend £48 million ($67 million) on chemical weapons defense in the wake of the attack.
Johnson said he had been “very heartened” by the international solidarity shown for Britain’s stance towards Russia, after key allies the United States and France made statements of support.
After talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday France shared Britain’s view that that there was “no other plausible explanation” other than Russian culpability, and said he would announce unspecified "measures" in coming days.
The White House also expressed its solidarity, with a statement from the Office of the Press Secretary Wednesday saying that Washington shared the assessment that Russia was responsible. It said the attack fitted a “pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes.”
The statement came after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blasted Moscow at an emergency session of the Security Council.
“If we don't take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used,” said Haley. “They could be used here in New York or in cities of any country that sits on this council.”
Moscow’s ambassador to the U.N. Vassily Nebenzia dismissed the allegations of Russian involvement, suggesting Britain was the more likely culprit.
“The most probable source [of] origin [of] this chemical are the countries which have since the end of the 90s been carrying … out intensive research on these kinds of weapons, including the U.K.,” he said.
The targets of the nerve agent attack, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, are still fighting for their lives.
Cover image: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves Number 10 Downing Street following a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May over the spy poisoning case on March 14, 2018 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)