Russian spy latest: Britain to raise Sergei Skripal poisoning case with Nato allies

Development comes as Home Secretary Amber Rudd reveals the investigation now involves more than 250 counter terrorism police officers.

Adam Lusher
Saturday 10 March 2018 18:55
Sergei Skripal: What we know so far

Britain is to raise the Sergei Skripal poisoning case with its Nato allies, a defence minister has revealed.

With military chemical weapons experts now investigating the suspected nerve agent attack and Home Secretary Amber Rudd chairing an emergency Cobra meeting on Saturday afternoon, Tobias Ellwood said the Government intended to discuss the case at Nato level.

“We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves, but we must have a robust response and it’s something that we’ll be discussing with our Nato partners,” the defence minister said.

“Some big questions arise, as to how do you stand up to a clandestine and sinister attack deliberately done to play havoc in our society?”

His firm line appeared to be backed by the security minister Ben Wallace, who mentioned Britain’s “powerful allies” as he said the Government was ready to respond with “the full force of the United Kingdom’s resources” once investigators had established who was behind the attack.

Mr Wallace told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Once we have established the facts and the attribution, the Government and law enforcement and others will respond appropriately.

“We will respond with the full force of the United Kingdom’s resources if that is the appropriate and proportionate thing to do.”

“There are lots of things that the United Kingdom can do,” Mr Wallace added. “It is a powerful country with a powerful economy, powerful allies, powerful military and powerful other capabilities – and we shall look at all those.”

Sergei Skripal: Forensic police inspect cemetery in Salisbury in connection with Russian spy poisoning case

After Saturday’s Cobra meeting, Ms Rudd revealed that the investigation of the suspected nerve agent attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia had now become a massive operation involving more than 250 counter terrorism police officers.

Investigators have now identified over 240 witnesses and are looking at more than 200 pieces of evidence.

Mr Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter remain seriously ill in hospital. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, one of the first to come to their assistance when they collapsed on Sunday, is also still in hospital.

He was, however, able to release a statement via Wiltshire Police on Saturday, saying he was not a hero and had only been doing his job.

The mention of Nato suggests a potential further hardening of Government attitudes towards Russia, from a point where tensions were already high even before the events in Salisbury.

On Monday, hours before it became clear that Mr Skripal had been poisoned, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was telling MPs: “Vladimir Putin has made it quite clear that he has hostile intent towards this country. We have to wake up to that threat and we have to respond to it.”

If the investigation does prove Russian state involvement, the Government will face intense pressure to produce a strong response.

It has already been accused of emboldening Russia with a “weak” reaction to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, who had radioactive polonium slipped into his tea at a London hotel in 2006.

In 2016 a public inquiry found there was a “strong probability” that Mr Litvinenko’s killers were acting on behalf of the Russian secret service in an operation “probably approved” by Mr Putin.

Theresa May, then the Home Secretary, told MPs she would be seeking European arrest warrants for the two suspected killers, and said there would be a Treasury freeze on the pair’s assets.

She added that the UK had been “leading” on EU sanctions that were already in place against Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

But she and then Prime Minister David Cameron were accused of going soft on Moscow and taking only symbolic action. The inquiry reported a month after Mr Cameron and Mr Putin had pledged to “work together” to defeat Isis in Syria.

Some MPs and Mr Litvinenko’s widow Marina had been calling for the expulsion of all Russian security service officers from Britain, for action against “dirty money” invested in London and for Britain to reconsider its involvement in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

At the time, Ms Litvinenko’s lawyer Ben Emmerson said Government inaction would be “craven”.

After Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned, Bill Browder, a British businessman who has campaigned to expose high-level corruption in Russia, told MPs: “The consequences of the Litvinenko inquiry were laughably inadequate, and have basically given the Russian government and Putin a green light to do more hits on UK soil.”

A similar argument was advanced by Tory MP John Whittingdale, the former Culture Secretary, who told Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Tuesday that it was “two years since the public inquiry concluded that President Putin almost certainly approved the murder of Mr Litvinenko.”

“Is it not therefore clear,” Mr Whittingdale demanded, “that existing sanctions are failing to deter Russia, possibly even from carrying out further assassinations on British soil, and that the time has come to impose far tougher sanctions against targeted individuals associated with President Putin’s regime?”

In reply, Mr Johnson said: “If the suspicions of members on all sides of this House are indeed confirmed, then that is going to have to be one of the options we look at.”

It is unclear what collective action – if any – Nato might take if investigators were able to confirm widespread suspicions that Russia is behind the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter.

The first time that Nato invoked the collective defence principle enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty was in response to the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.

Nato also announced collective defence measures in 2014 in response to what was seen as Russia’s annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine.

The measures adopted consisted largely of increased military presences and shows of strength. Nato increased its presence in the south east of the alliance area, which is centred on a multinational brigade in Romania.

The alliance also stepped up its policing of airspace over the Black Sea and bolstered the defences of eastern European Nato members by deploying multinational battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Yulia Skripal and her father were found unconscious on a Salisbury park bench

Russia has vehemently denied involvement in the nerve agent attack and accused British politicians of engaging in “pure propaganda”.

Security officials, however, have said the specific chemical used would have been difficult to obtain and could only have come from a state run or state-licensed laboratory.

This, though, does not rule out the possibility of freelance action by aggrieved Russian agents still bitter at the way Mr Skripal betrayed his comrades by passing on the identities of operatives to the British.

A senior British diplomat who had served in Moscow told The Independent: “Skripal was an MI6 agent who was highly successful and who passed on the identities of Russian spies, supposedly in return for money. So he had betrayed lots of his comrades, he had made lots of enemies. Maybe this was payback.”

It has been reported that Mr Skripal, codenamed “Forthwith” by his British handlers, was even able to hand over the entire telephone directory of the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency.

It was said the double agent spent nearly ten years handing over secrets after MI6 first made contact with him when he was spying for Russia in Spain in July 1995.

MI6 reportedly ended up buying Mr Skripal a timeshare holiday home near Malaga, and his case officer would allegedly fly out to see him, paying between $5,000 and $6,000 in cash at the end of every visit.

But in December 2004 Mr Skripal was arrested by the Russians. He was jailed for treason in 2006 but freed in 2010, in what is thought to have been the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.

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