British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that Russia was “highly likely” behind last week’s poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with a military-grade nerve agent.
May’s statement to Parliament marks the first time the British government publicly accused the Kremlin of being behind the attack.
“Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get in the hands of others,” May said.
May summoned Russia’s ambassador in London and gave him until Tuesday to explain what happened.
Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, remain in a critical condition following the March 4 incident in Salisbury, about 90 miles west of London. They were found unconscious on a park bench after a shopping trip.
Russia has strongly rejected suggestions that it might be behind the poisoning.
In Washington, the White House appeared unwilling to go as far as May in attributing responsibility. “Right now, we are standing with our U.K. ally. They’re still working through some of the details on that,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. She called the attack “reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible.”
May, in her statement, said Britain was ready to take “extensive measures” against Moscow if it does not get a satisfactory explanation. Otherwise, Britain will consider the incident “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” she said.
British media described the “extensive measures” as possible sanctions.
Skripal was jailed in Russia in 2006 after he confessed to being recruited by British intelligence and supplying information about Russian agents. He was freed in 2010 as part of a U.S.-Russian spy swap and moved to Britain.
While it is not clear why Skripal was targeted, his poisoning is reminiscent of the 2006 poisoning death of another former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko, after he was exposed to a rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210, at a London hotel.
An official British inquiry concluded in 2016 that Russian President Vladimir Putin probably approved the assassination of Litvinenko.
The chemical identified in the attack against Skripral is part of a group of nerve agents first developed in the former Soviet Union and known as “Novichok, or “newcomer” in English. It is extremely potent.
Putin, asked by a British reporter Monday if Russia was behind the poisoning, said in comments carried by Russian news wires: “You first get to the bottom of things over there, and after that we can discuss it.” Russia’s foreign ministry referred to May’s allegation as a “circus show in the British Parliament.”
On Sunday, police advised around 500 people near the Skripals when they visited a pub and restaurant to wash their possessions as a precautionary measure. Trace amounts of the nerve agent were found on a table where they had lunch.