Theresa May has given Vladimir Putin 24 hours to explain how a deadly Russian nerve agent was used in an assassination attempt on British soil, as she said it is “highly likely” Moscow was responsible.
She vowed Britain will pursue “extensive measures” unless a credible account can be given as to how military-grade Novichok was deployed, leaving an ex-spy, his daughter and a British policeman in hospital.
Retaliatory action that might be announced as early as Wednesday could potentially include a larger military presence in Eastern Europe, fresh sanctions and action at the United Nations.
Government sources told The Independent British ministers have also discussed expelling the Russian Ambassador in response to what Ms May branded a “reckless and despicable act”. Ms May said if there is no “credible response” by the end of Tuesday, then the UK would conclude there has been an “unlawful use of force” by Moscow.
The White House immediately backed Britain on Monday, branding the attack as “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible”, but Moscow dismissed the Prime Minister’s statement as a “circus”.
Ms May revealed experts at Britain’s Porton Down defence laboratory have confirmed the Salisbury attack involved highly-specialised Novichok, first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Updating the Commons, she explained that as a result it is “highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the act against ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, which also left Wiltshire Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey in a serious condition and parts of the medieval cathedral city off limits.
The Prime Minister went on: “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.
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.”
She argued there are only two plausible explanations for the attack on 4 March – a “direct act by the Russian state against our country” or that Russia allowed the nerve agent to fall “into the hands of others”.
MPs were told that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called-in Russia’s Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko to demand answers, with sources later telling The Independent the meeting just before 4pm was only five minutes long.
Describing the tone of the face-to-face, a Foreign Office insider said it was “cool but firm, and there was no handshake”.
The “outrage” felt by the British public was made clear to Mr Yakovenko, who was told his country had until midnight on Tuesday to explain itself.
Downing Street officials explained that cabinet ministers and security chiefs will discuss the Russian response at a meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday, ahead of a potential further statement to the Commons that afternoon.
Speaking to MPs on Monday, Ms May set out a “well-established pattern of Russian state aggression” – including invading Crimea, fomenting overseas conflict, violating European airspace and meddling in other country’s elections.
She then went on to give a strong indication of potential avenues for action, saying the UK is committed to collective defence through NATO “in the face of Russian behaviour”.
She added: “Indeed our armed forces have a leading role in Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence with British troops leading a multinational battle group in Estonia.
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“We have led the way in securing tough sanctions against the Russian economy. And we have at all stages worked closely with our allies and we will continue to do so.
“We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.”
She also signalled a push at the UN saying that the attack had been an “unlawful use of force”, something that would constitute a breach of Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter.
One minister told The Independent: “We have already been discussing kicking the ambassador out, it had seemed too early before today. But things are different now.”
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chairman and Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat said Russia’s actions were “deeply threatening to the British people”.
While a string of Labour MPs stood to show solidarity with Ms May’s approach, their leader Jeremy Corbyn chose to make a political point about donations the Conservatives have received from Russian business people.
Mr Putin dismissed claims about his state’s alleged involvement on Monday, telling a BBC reporter who questioned him on a visit to a grain centre: “We’re dealing with agriculture here … and you talk to me about some tragedies.
“Get to the bottom of things there, then we’ll discuss this.”
The Kremlin has denied involvement, while the Russian embassy accused Britain of playing a “very dangerous game” and warned of “serious long-term consequences” and Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova branded Ms May’ statement “a circus show in the British parliament”.
Andrei Lugovoi, one of the two men accused of assassinating Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium in 2006, said Britain’s response to events was suspiciously quick. Evidence, he said, that London was operating according to its own script.
“Any chemist or physicist will tell you that as a minimum you need some kind of serious expertise on a serious expert level to determine whether or not a country is responsible,” he told the Interfax news agency. “When such statements are made in the course of a few days, this speaks only of irresponsibility and the fact that they haven’t set out to discover the truth.”
The White House response did not directly mention Russia, but said: “The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage.
“The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible…we stand by our closest ally in the special relationship that we have.”
Downing Street officials said discussions with other allies were taking place at the highest official level.