Russia demands nerve agent samples in standoff with UK over poisoned spy

Russia demands nerve agent samples in standoff with UK over poisoned spy


Russia has summoned the UK’s ambassador to the foreign ministry in Moscow, as its foreign minister denied the country was behind last week’s nerve agent attack in Salisbury and said it would only cooperate in an investigation if it received samples of the agent.

“Russia is not responsible,” Sergei Lavrov said during a televised press conference that marked an escalation of the standoff with the UK over the poisoning of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Lavrov also suggested Moscow would not comply with a Tuesday midnight deadline set by Theresa May to deliver an explanation or face retaliation. He said Moscow’s requests to see samples of the nerve agent had been turned down, which he called a violation of the chemical weapons convention outlawing the production of chemical weapons.

“We have already made our statement on this case,” he said. “Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention.”

In his remarks, Lavrov said that under the convention, Russia would have 10 days to reply to an official accusation by the UK over the use of a banned substance within its borders.

His response reflected the broadly dismissive tone adopted by the Russian establishment on Tuesday.

“We have an enormous government here in Russia, it’s a global country, we have a mass of problems both internal and external,” Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the Russian federation council’s foreign affairs committee, told the Guardian by telephone. “This entire story about your internal score-settlings and scandals doesn’t interest me.”

Separately, the Russian foreign ministry said it had summoned the UK’s ambassador to Moscow, Laurie Bristow, according to reports in state media. Reached by phone, a representative for the British embassy in Moscow said Bristow would visit the foreign ministry on Tuesday for talks with Vladimir Titov, the first deputy minister for foreign affairs.

May told parliament on Monday it was “highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal”. She named the poison used as Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, and heard suggestions that the UK should respond by revoking broadcasting licences to Russian media or increasing scrutiny on foreign investment from Russia.

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.

“Much less is known about the Novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”

The most potent of the Novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

And while the Novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for Novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.

The chemical structures of Novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.

The Novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.

The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the Novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.

Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe

Russian officials have remain defiant towards the UK, at least in public, accusing Britain of succumbing to its own “Russophobia” and saying they could handle the situation however May decides to respond.

Asked whether he and colleagues would be watching when May spoke after the deadline, Klimov said: “God, no. I’m going to find out from journalists like you.”

Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman called May’s remarks on Monday “a circus show”. Vladimir Putin, asked by the BBC whether Russia was behind the Skripal poisoning, said: “Get to the bottom of things there, first, then we’ll talk about this.”

The breakdown of relations with the UK comes at a sensitive time for Russia politically, with the president set to be re-elected to a fourth term in power on Sunday. Putin is scheduled to address supporters on Wednesday in Crimea, the peninsula whose annexation from Ukraine in 2014 set off a chill in relations between Russia and the west.

Since then, Putin has survived several international scandals including the downing of the MH17 plane over east Ukraine and accusations of meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

In some cases, the growing conflict with the west and a siege mentality at home appear to have boosted his ratings.

The Russian senator Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Tuesday that the west has regularly condemned Russia without its input. He said: “We’ve made a decision here, investigated it ourselves, delivered our own verdict and sentence. And Russia should defend itself without any evidence or participation in the process.”

No one has suggested that Russia is gathering evidence to help British investigators. Klimov, speaking by telephone, argued that Russia had no motive to attack Skripal and suggested other former Soviet countries could be behind the attack.

In denying the allegations, he also issued a warning, saying: “I would just like to tell Russians who hope to hide in Great Britain from ‘bad Russians’ one thing: It’s going to be very unsafe for you. It’s long since become a place where bad things happen. This isn’t Moscow’s fault, something is happening over there.”

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