politics

U.K. Threatens Tougher Sanctions in Russia Spy Poisoning Probe

Updated on
  • Foreign secretary calls Russia ‘malign and disruptive force’
  • May convenes National Security Council on possible steps
"It is clear that Russia, I’m afraid, is now in many respects a malign and disruptive force," Johnson says.

After the suspected poisoning of a Russian dissident over the weekend in western England, Britain says it’s considering tougher sanctions if the Kremlin is found to have played a role in the incident.

Prime Minister Theresa May convened her National Security Council to discuss the matter after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that Russia is a “malign and disruptive force.”

“Should evidence emerge that shows state responsibility, then Her Majesty’s government will respond appropriately and robustly,” Johnson said after Sergei Skripal, a Russian convicted in his home country of spying for Britain, was found critically ill on a bench Sunday in Salisbury. “It may very well be that we are forced to look again at our sanctions regime and other measures that we may seek to put in place.”

Police outside the Zizzi restaurant near to where Skripal was found critically ill, on March 6.

Photographer: Steve Parsons/PA Wire via AP Photo

Johnson’s aides and May’s spokesman, James Slack, also rowed back an apparent threat by the foreign minister to boycott the World Cup being hosted by Russia this year. “It will be very difficult to imagine that U.K. representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way,” he said. Slack said he was referring to diplomats and political representatives attending the games, not the players themselves.

‘Tragic Situation’

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told journalists that Moscow is prepared to help with the investigation. “We see this tragic situation but we don’t have information on what could have led to this, what he was engaged in,” he said.

The incident has uncomfortable echoes of the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian ex-spy who was murdered in 2006 after his tea was spiked with radioactive polonium. In 2016, a judge ruled that Putin probably approved the murder. Russia dismissed the U.K. inquiry at the time as a “politicized farce.”

Britain has clashed with Russia over Putin’s policies in Ukraine and Syria, its cyberattacks on other countries, and its alleged attempts to influence elections in Europe and the U.S. Johnson said other western nations have been reluctant to respond to the Kremlin’s challenge to the “international order” because of their reliance on Russian oil and gas.

“The U.K. is in the lead across the world in standing up to Russia, and it may be that explains the hostility we are having to endure,” Johnson said. “Russia is certainly prepared to attack our infrastructure and we should guard against that possibility with every preparation that we can.”

Spy Swap

Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were found unconscious at a Salisbury shopping mall. Doctors and toxicologists are expected to release results of tests in the case on Tuesday.

The pair “did not have any visible injuries,” Wiltshire police said in a statement. “They are currently being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance. Both remain in a critical condition in intensive care.” Several front line emergency personnel are being treated in the hospital too.

Officers from London’s Metropolitan Police, which heads nationwide counter-terrorism work, took over leadership of the operation due to its “unusual nature,” while the local Wiltshire force closed an Italian restaurant and a pub as part of the investigation. Earlier Tuesday, workers in respirators and hazardous material suits searched bins in the shopping mall.

Freya Church told the BBC she saw the pair sitting on a bench: “She was sort of leant in on him, it looked like she had passed out maybe,” she said. “He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky. They looked so out of it I thought even if I did step in I wasn’t sure how I could help.”

In 2006, Skripal was convicted of passing the identities of Russian agents in Europe to the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, according to a person familiar with the case. Russian authorities said payments totaling $100,000 were made into a Spanish bank account in return for his work for the U.K. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail, but in 2010 was pardoned and sent to Britain, where he was swapped for agents who had been arrested in the U.S.

Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, told radio station Ekho Moskvy that Russia hasn’t hunted exiles since the 1940s, and that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the Skripal case.

“The U.K. needs to investigate within its own borders because Russia couldn’t have anything to do with this,” Lugovoi said. Skripal’s case “was closed as soon as he was swapped.”

— With assistance by Henry Meyer

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE