UK, Russia square off over poisoning, allies rally to London's side

London: The leaders of the United States, France, Germany and Canada have endorsed Britain's assessment that a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in March was conducted by Russian military officers and "almost certainly" approved at a senior level of the Russian government.

The leaders urged Russia to provide a "full disclosure" of its Novichok nerve-agent program and said they would "continue to disrupt together the hostile activities of foreign intelligence networks on our territories."

United Kingdom's United Nations Ambassador Karen Pierce

Photo: AP

The joint statement was released shortly before London's and Moscow's envoys to the United Nations squared off in an emergency Security Council meeting called by Britain to brief diplomats on the investigation.

British Ambassador Karen Pierce methodically outlined evidence that she said pointed to the Kremlin's complicity in the attack, which occurred March 4 in the quiet English city of Salisbury.

Two Russians - using the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov - were charged on Wednesday in absentia with attempting to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent.

Pierce acknowledged the two suspects, who flew back to Russia shortly after the attack, cannot be extradited under the Russian constitution. But she said Britain will ask Interpol to issue a red alert to pick them up if they ever leave Russian territory, so they can be tried in Britain.

Russia's United Nations Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya listens during the UN Security Council meeting.

Photo: AP

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia calmly twirled a pencil in his hand as Pierce, sitting five feet away, spoke. Then, with intense scorn, he denied Russian involvement in the case, which he ridiculed as "an unfounded and mendacious cocktail of facts".

Nebenzia sought to diminish the British evidence, saying it defied credulity to conclude that two Russians had smuggled Novichok to Britain in a counterfeit perfume bottle without being poisoned themselves. He questioned the authenticity of camera footage showing the Russians arriving at London's Gatwick Airport. And he dismissed the assertion that the two men worked for Russia's GRU intelligence agency, when the names they used to enter Britain are believed to be aliases.

"Nothing is surprising in this post-truth world created by our Western colleagues," he said, according to the English translation of his remarks.

He denied that Russia had ever developed or deployed Novichok and rejected the British contention that Russia has refused to cooperate, claiming instead that London had refused Moscow's offers to help.

"London needs this story for one purpose," he said. "To unleash disgusting, anti-Russian hysteria."

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley lauded the British for "staging a master class" in how to conduct an investigation.

"Now we must help our British friends find the two suspects identified and bring them to face justice in the UK," she said. "Better yet, why doesn't the Russian government turn these two over to British authorities?"

Sergei Skripal, a former GRU officer, was convicted in 2006 of sharing state secrets with the British. He was released to Britain in a spy swap in 2010.

May told Parliament on Wednesday that the alleged assailants were GRU agents and that the attack was "almost certainly" approved at "a senior level of the Russian state".

British Security Minister Ben Wallace went further on Thursday, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ultimately responsible for the attack. Putin is "President of the Russian Federation, and it is his government that controls, funds and directs the military intelligence - that's the GRU - via his minister of defence," Wallace told the BBC.

As the UK sought to increase pressure on Russia, Jeremy Fleming, the director of intelligence arm GCHQ, said the government's cyber intelligence agency would "deploy the full range of tools" to counter the threat posed by Putin's regime.

Whitehall sources said Britain had the "offensive cyber capability" to target the GRU and individuals linked to it.

Fleming, giving a speech at the Billington Cyber Security Conference in Washington, said: "The threat from Russia is real. It's active. And it will be countered by a strong international partnership of allies."

He said GCHQ was "able to deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus" and added that it was "ready to reject the Kremlin's brazen determination to undermine the international rules based order".

Britain is pushing for new sanctions on Russia and stepping up efforts to confiscate dirty money linked to allies of Putin in an attempt to put pressure on Moscow to hand over the agents.

Washington Post; Telegraph, UK

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