British Prime Minister Theresa May says her government has concluded that the substance used to poison a Russian ex-patriot on British soil last week was a nerve agent stockpiled in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, leading her to accuse the Russian government of the attack.
May said she had summoned the Russian ambassador to the UK Foreign Office to explain whether the attack was direct action by the Russian government or whether Russia had lost control of its stockpiles of chemical weapons.
In an unusually strong language May demanded a response from the Russian government by the end of Tuesday and said, “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
Whatever the response, this episode is likely heighten tensions between the two nations to levels not seen in decades.
Sixty-six-year-old former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia have been hospitalized since March 4, when the two were found slumped, unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, a cathedral city in Wilshire, England, about ninety miles southwest of London.
Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted in Russia of spying for the British in 2006. He was released in 2010 as part of a negotiated spy swap between the nations and had been living in Salisbury ever since. His daughter Yulia flew to England the day before the two were found.
Authorities said the two were suffering from “exposure to a nerve agent.” Skripal has been described as being “seriously ill” and authorities say his condition has worsened since being admitted to hospital.
A third victim, a British Detective that visited Skripal’s home at the outset of the investigation has also been hospitalized. His condition has been described as serious. Police in England said they were treating the case as attempted murder.
The nerve agent authorities believe was used in the attack is Novichok, a military grade substance developed in the Soviet Union during the 1970s.
“Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal,” May said.
“This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” May added.
This would not be the first time a former Russian security agent was attacked on British soil.
In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, fell critically ill after allegedly drinking a cup of poisoned tea. He died roughly one month later in University College Hospital in London after his condition had gotten progressively worse.
Litvinenko had been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and accused him of orchestrating terrorist attacks within Russia to use as pretext for the invasion of Chechnya. He sought and was granted asylum in the UK in 2000.
Authorities would later determine the cause of Litvinenko’s death to be a deadly toxin known as radioactive polonium-210.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the attack “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible,” today but refused to blame Russia for it, saying that UK authorities were still working their way through their investigation and response.
“We stand with our ally and fully support them and are ready if we can be of any assistance to them,” she said.