Suspected Nerve Agent Assassination Attempt Roils UK-Russia Ties

Patrick Goodenough | March 8, 2018 | 4:26am EST
Font Size
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meets with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow in December 2017. (Photo: Russian foreign ministry)

( – Hinting strongly that Russia is suspected of being behind the deliberate poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter this week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson promised that the government “will respond appropriately and robustly” if evidence of state responsibility emerges.

Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, are in a critical condition in hospital after an incident in a small city in southern England early this week.

Police confirmed that a nerve agent – which police are not identifying publicly yet – was administered, that the pair were “targeted specifically,” and that a case of attempted murder is being investigated.

Also in hospital was a “seriously ill” police officer who was among the first to respond after two were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping center in Salisbury on Sunday, said Scotland Yard assistant chief commissioner Mark Rowley.

He said hundreds of officers were working around the clock on the investigation.

Addressing the House of Commons, Johnson said it would be wrong to prejudge the matter, but that lawmakers “will note the echoes of the death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.”

Litvinenko died in London of polonium poisoning shortly after accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of responsibility for the murder of another prominent Putin critic, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, several weeks earlier.

A British inquiry later concluded that Putin probably approved the hit on Litvinenko, and Britain expelled four Russian diplomats in response. Moscow dismissed the probe as politically motivated.

Johnson said it was too early to speculate on the incident in Salisbury, “but members will have their suspicions. If those suspicions prove to be well founded, this government will take whatever measures we deem necessary to protect the lives of the people in this country, our values and our freedoms.”

“Though I am not now pointing fingers, because we cannot do so, I say to governments around the world that no attempt to take innocent life on U.K. soil will go either unsanctioned or unpunished.”


Skripal, a former colonel in military intelligence, was arrested by security agencies in 2004, convicted of treason and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment.

In 2010, he was handed over to the West as part of broader exchange: four prisoners accused by Russia of spying for the West, swapped for 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in the U.S.

Skripal has lived in Britain ever since, and it’s reported that his daughter was visiting from Russia at the time of the attack.

The Russian Embassy in London slammed Johnson’s remarks, saying in a statement that it “looks like the script of yet another anti-Russian campaign has already been written.”

In Moscow, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova charged that Western media have seized on the incident “to fuel the anti-Russian campaign.”

“These fake news stories are aimed at complicating Russia-U.K. relations,” Zakharova said. “It is impossible to see any other reason behind them.”

Russia’s hosting of the World Cup

It remains to be seen how Britain would respond should evidence point to Russian involvement, but Johnson did make one remark that caused a stir.

“Thinking ahead to the World Cup this summer, it is very difficult to imagine how U.K. representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way,” he told the Commons, “and we will certainly have to consider that.”

Russia is hosting the 2018 soccer World Cup, one of the world’s largest sporting events, and England is one of the 32 teams qualified to take part.

Johnson’s comment about British “representation” was widely seen as pointing to a threatened boycott, but the foreign office later clarified that he was referring to government-level representation, not sporting participation.

Labor lawmaker Toby Perkins, who had asked the question in parliament that prompted Johnson’s comment, told Sky News afterwards that if the foreign secretary was merely suggesting Britain may forego socializing with dignitaries at the World Cup, “that’s a really pathetic response.”

“I think there’s a lot of frustration in parliament that the foreign secretary appears to have such big rhetoric and so little action when it comes to Russia,” Perkins said.

He said the international community should long ago have been pressurizing the world soccer body FIFA to rescind Russia’s hosting rights.

FIFA in 2010 voted to award Russia the rights for the 2018 event, a choice that drew criticism then and later because of its human rights record, problems of racism in Russian soccer, and Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.

Further controversy arose with a Swiss investigation into alleged corruption in the bidding process.

Calls for then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter to strip Russia of the hosting rights were backed by some U.S. lawmakers.

“Allowing Russia to host the FIFA World Cup inappropriately bolsters the prestige of the Putin regime at a time when it should be condemned and provides economic relief at a time when much of the international community is imposing economic sanctions,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators wrote FIFA in 2015.

Blatter resigned that year, dogged by corruption scandals.

Despite Russia’s controversial behavior at home and abroad there has been no significant campaign to boycott the competition.

In 2016, when Britain’s House of Commons was debating the carnage in Syria, Labor lawmaker Perkins raised the issue.

“Is it not utterly ludicrous that, in two years’ time, the greatest sporting spectacle on earth – the World Cup – will be held in Russia, but not a single country is pulling out of it?” he asked.

“If we are really serious about sending a message to Putin that is heard on the ground, should we not be questioning whether the World Cup should take place in Russia?”

The competition is scheduled to run from June 14-July 15. (The U.S. failed to qualify for the competition, for the first time since 1986.)

mrc merch