Live Blog

Theresa May on Russia's Role in Spy Poisoning

Wednesday March 14, 2018
Welcome to TOPLive. We'll bring you live coverage as Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons on the U.K.'s response to the poisoning of a former spy on British soil and possible retaliatory measures against Russia.
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Hello, I'm Robert Hutton, and I cover British politics. I'm joined by Kitty Donaldson, who covers politics and national security. Also here are Gregory White and Brad Cook in Moscow, Natasha Doff, who'll be watching the market reaction, and Leonid Bershidsky and Therese Raphael from Bloomberg View. Daniel Zuidijk and Nour Al Ali will be keeping an eye on what's going on on social media.
A few words on timings:

  • May is on her feet in Parliament now, for her weekly Prime Minister's Questions session
  • She's due to give her statement on Russia once that finishes -- officially 12.30 p.m. London time, but PMQs can run on
  • It's quite possible Russia won't come up in the questions, because she's going to make a statement on the subject, but we'll be here if it does
  • Once PMQs is over, May will set out Russia's position and Britain's response
  • Then opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will give a shorter response, asking May questions
  • May will answer those, and then the floor is thrown open for other members of Parliament to ask her questions
Here's a link to watch May in the House of Commons. New feature: You can watch and continue to track the blog on the same page on
{LIVE <GO>}. (Streaming links only for Bloomberg Terminal Users)
Source: PBU
First up, a timeline of what's happened during the last 10 days:

  • March 4: Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter are found unconscious on a bench in the British town of Salisbury
  • March 6: Britain says counter terrorism police are investigating and it’s considering tougher sanctions if the Kremlin is found to have played a role
  • March 7: Police say a nerve agent was used to attack the Skripals and they're treating the case as attempted murder
Military personnel wearing protective suits remove a police car and other vehicles from a parking lot in Salisbury on March 11 as part of the investigation. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
  • March 12: Following pressure to act, Prime Minister Theresa May publicly accuses Russia of using a "military grade" nerve agent and warns of retaliation
  • March 13: Russia calls the charge "nonsense" and rejects the ultimatum to account for the attack, warning of repercussions if May takes punitive measures
Who is Sergei Skripal? He's a 66-year-old former Russian military intelligence official who spied for the U.K. for a decade, so basically a double agent. He has been living in exile after being sent to Britain in 2010 in a spy swap. In a state-television documentary released Sunday, Vladimir Putin made it clear how he feels about double agents, saying he can never forgive treachery.
A file photo of Sergei Skripal from August 2006. Here he speaks to his lawyer from behind bars seen on a screen of a monitor outside a courtroom in Moscow. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)
The assassination attempt is sensitive because Britain has been reluctant to hit back hard against Russia for attacks on its soil. The response to the 2006 poison murder of Russian Alexander Litvinenko, for instance, was widely derided as toothless. Hence the pressure on May to act forcefully now.
On Monday, May told Parliament it was "highly likely" that Russia was behind the attempted murder of Skripal, so she is back today to tell us what Britain is going to do about it. Here's a shot of her leaving 10 Downing Street following a meeting earlier.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
The government had this to say on Twitter before May's statement:

Foreign Office @foreignoffice
The UK has called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to update Council members on the investigation into the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
And in the last hour, EU Council President Donald Tusk has offered May his "full solidarity" in a statement that named Moscow as the "most likely" culprit for the attack. He said the issue would be going onto the agenda for next week's European Council.
May is likely to have a two-part approach to dealing with Russia, one short-term and one medium-term.

Today she's most likely to:

  • Target Putin allies who have assets in Britain
  • Expel Russian diplomats based in London
  • Remove the broadcast license from the Kremlin-controlled English-language television station RT
  • Stop officials attending soccer’s World Cup in Russia
  • Announce an additional crackdown on fake news and Twitter bots
Longer term Britain is likely to:

  • Seek more support from international allies the European Union, NATO and the U.S.
  • Assess proportionate cyber-attacks on Russian targets
  • Seek to mirror U.S.-style sanctions, such as the Magnitsky Act, to freeze assets of foreign officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses
  • Assess whether to leak classified material on the alleged scale of money laundering by Putin and his allies
May might even go so far as to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that would have significant implications for trade and arms sales, although it seems a little early in the process for such a huge step.
Russia has rejected May's ultimatum from the start. Our sources say the Kremlin expects some largely symbolic moves by the U.K., such as expulsions of diplomats, but no sweeping new sanctions or other measures that would require London to rally its Western allies.
Quick check of markets: Russian stocks are falling before May's speech, with a drop that's the second worst in the world today. Traders of bonds and the ruble are still shrugging off the potential reprisals, with many investors saying they don't see how the U.K. response could impact markets.
One key question: Should any sanctions be harsher than those imposed on Russia for invading Crimea? May must be constrained by the need to keep some kind of balance in trying to punish Putin; On the other hand, Ukraine is far away and Skripal was attacked in U.K. territory. Perhaps the most fitting response would be to hunt down the killers -- and those who poisoned Litvinenko in 2006 -- wherever they may be, even in Russia. But one can hardly expect the U.K. to respond in kind to this kind of violence. It's not easy to see what other measures might give Putin pause.
Placing any serious economic sanctions on Russia would need the EU's cooperation, and it's far from assured given the opposition to existing sanctions in countries such as Austria, Hungary and Italy -- and given all the Brexit bad blood.
If you're just joining us, Theresa May is answering questions in the House of Commons as we await her statement on the Russia spy case.
Source: PBU
A cyberattack on Russia, which has also been discussed, would be hard to target so that it does serious damage, and this is one of the areas in which the Putin regime can defend itself and counterattack effectively.
May is in a quandary. I'd say the most she can do is keep the public's attention on this matter long enough to take a breather from her Brexit troubles. Deterring more murders of Russians on British soil would require actions and resources that are simply not available to her.
This is hardly the kind of attack that will be enough to trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty, as 9/11 did in the U.S. It's not clear what practical steps other NATO countries can take to help the U.K. under the circumstances. Again, it's important to keep things in perspective.
Putin's been very clear on turncoats. A quote from 2010:

"Traitors will kick the bucket, trust me. You’re talking about a person who betrayed their friends, their comrades-in-arms. Whatever they got in exchange for it, those 30 pieces of silver they were given, they will choke on them."
Meanwhile, Russian state TV is live with an interview with Andrei Lugovoi, the man the U.K. blamed for the 2006 poisoning murder of Litvinenko in London. Lugovoi is now a member of the Russian parliament.
I’ve been having a look at the Russian Embassy in London website to see their view on the bilateral relationship. It ain’t pretty:

"We have to admit that at the moment Russo-British political dialogue is non-existent."
Russia's ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, has left the Foreign Office and has been speaking to journalists:

"I said that everything what is done today by the British government is absolutely unacceptable and we consider this a provocation. We believe that the U.K. should follow international law."
NATO's statement said the attack appears to be...

"the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since NATO’s foundation."
But it didn't outline a response beyond expressing "deep concern."