Monday

20th Jan 2020

EU 'stands with' UK on alleged Russian attack

The EU and Nato have conveyed sympathy to the UK, as Britain threatens sanctions on Russia over its alleged nerve gas attack.

"I want to express my strong feelings of solidarity with the British people and the British government. We stand with you," Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, said on Monday (12 March).

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  • Russia's Zakharova denigrated UK 'circus show' and 'fairy tales' (Photo: mid.ru)

An EU spokesperson told EUobserver: "We are aware of events surrounding Sergei Skripal and wish him and his daughter [the victims of the attack], also critically ill in hospital, a swift and full recovery".

Jens Stoltenberg, the head of the Western military alliance, said: "The UK is a highly valued ally and this incident is of great concern to Nato."

He added that the alliance was cooperating with British authorities in their ongoing investigation.

The statements came after British prime minister Theresa May said in parliament the same day it was "highly likely" that the Russian state had ordered Skripal's assassination and had used Novochek, a military-grade nerve agent, to poison him, his daughter, and three British policemen in Salisbury on 4 March.

She said it was possible Russia had "lost control" of its Novochek stock to a non-state group.

But she threatened to impose "much more extensive measures" than previous Russia sanctions if the Russian foreign ministry did not give a "credible" account of its innocence by Tuesday evening.

"It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk," she said.

The Russian foreign ministry called May's words "a circus show in Britain's parliament".

Its spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, also described as "fairy tales" previous allegations that Russia had murdered Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, and Alexander Perepilichny, three other Russian exiles in the UK, in the past few years.

The Russian embassy to the UK said it was "outraged" by the "anti-Russian media campaign" in Britain and that May's government was playing "a very dangerous game … with British public opinion".

Extensive measures

The UK expelled Russian diplomats and imposed visa bans and asset freezes on suspects over the killing of Litvinenko in London using a radioactive poison in 2006.

May's "more extensive measures" could include wider Russian asset freezes, seeking further EU-level sanctions, increasing the Nato presence on Russia's border, designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, or a more creative response, such as leaking intelligence that would embarrass Russian leader Vladimir Putin ahead of Russia's upcoming election.

The EU, also on Monday, extended the life of its existing Russia visa bans and asset freezes by six months over Russia's continuing aggression in east Ukraine.

It is preparing to roll over economic sanctions on Russia before July.

But EU foreign ministers are not planning to discuss the Skripal affair when they meet in Brussels on Monday, with Ukraine, Syria, Iran, and North Korea on the agenda instead.

EU leaders also have no plans to discuss Skripal when they meet in Brussels next Thursday for talks on Brexit, eurozone reform, and EU relations with Turkey.

"At this moment, it [the Skripal attack] is not on the agenda, but it is still early days," Preben Amman, a spokesman for the EU Council, which prepares the summit agendas, told EUobserver on Monday.

The US would normally align itself with any UK or EU-level reaction to an international incident of this scale, but the White House repeatedly dodged questions on whether the US backed the British conclusion that Russia was "highly likely" to blame.

"The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage. The attack was reckless, indiscriminate, and irresponsible," Huckabee Sanders, the spokeswoman of the Russia-friendly US president Donald Trump, told press on Thursday.

Kremlin emboldened

Recalling the Litvinenko assassination, Molly Scott Cato, a British Green party MEP, said the British government had emboldened Russia by taking too little action at the time.

"We need to wake up to the fact that … Russian political retribution [is] spilling out onto the streets of the UK," she said.

Russia experts agreed that the Kremlin probably ordered the Skripal attack.

"Putin ... used on purpose military grade nerve agent to try to assassinate Skripal to make sure we all knew who did it. He is taunting us, daring us to do nothing," Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, said.

Mark Galeotti, a British expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said: "The odds that Russia's government lost control of Novichok stocks and this was used by some murderous mavericks to go after Skripal are minimal".

"It will be highly interesting to see if the rest of the EU as well as the US line up to support London in the confrontation with the Kremlin over state murders," Carl Bildt, the former foreign minister of Sweden, said.

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