Tillerson Backs Britain’s Assessment That Russians Poisoned Ex-Spy

By Patrick Goodenough | March 13, 2018 | 4:27 AM EDT

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London in May 2017. (Photo: U.S. Embassy London)

Update: President Trump, speaking to reporters informally before heading to California on Tuesday, said it sounds to him like Russia is behind the poisoning, based on "all of the evidence they have." He said he would be speaking with British Prime Minister Theresa May later Tuesday. "It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact," Trump said. He added, "We will condemn Russia" as soon as "we get the facts straight."

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed support Monday for Britain’s assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the deliberate poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter this month. "We are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson said.

The British government has given Moscow until Tuesday night to account for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, failing which Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged a “full range of measures” in response.

“We have full confidence in the U.K.’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week,” Tillerson said in a statement after a phone conversation with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson.

“There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson said, also citing Russia’s intervention in Syria and Ukraine as further indications of its disregard for the sovereignty of other countries and their citizens.

Tillerson said the U.S. agrees that those who ordered and carried out the attack “must face appropriately serious consequences.”

It was a strongly worded statement from Tillerson, whose business dealings in Russia as CEO of ExxonMobil netted him the Order of Friendship in 2013, awarded by President Vladimir Putin. The order is given to foreign nationals in recognition of efforts to improve relations with Russia and its people in a range of fields.

Russia has responded angrily to Britain’s accusations, with foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova deploring what she called “a circus show in Britain’s parliament.”

“Before making up new stories, let somebody in the [United] Kingdom tell us what the previous fairy-tales ended in,” the official Tass news agency quoted her as saying, referring to the earlier deaths in Britain of three Putin critics.

May told the House of Commons that the Skripals – who were found critically ill on a public bench in Salisbury on March 4 – were “poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”

She said the government has “concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible” – based on expert identification of the chemical agent, the knowledge that Russia has produced it in the past and remains capable of doing so, as well as “Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations.”


May said there were only two plausible explanations for the incident: “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

Johnson summoned the Russian ambassador to demand answers by the end of Tuesday. May said Britain also wants Russia immediately to provide full disclosure of the group of chemical agents concerned, known as “Novichok,” to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

“On Wednesday, we will consider in detail the response from the Russian state,’ she told lawmakers. “Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House to set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.”

“This attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals, but an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk,” May said. “We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.”

‘Rogue state’

Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence, was convicted of treason and sentenced in 2006 to 13 years’ imprisonment. He was handed over to the West as part of a spy swap in 2010 and has lived in Britain since.

In her Commons statement, the prime minister recalled Britain’s response to the death of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of polonium poisoning in 2006. A British inquiry later concluded that Putin probably approved the assassination at the hands of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

“Following Mr. Litvinenko’s death, we expelled Russian diplomats, suspended security co-operation, broke off bilateral plans on visas, froze the assets of the suspects and put them on international extradition lists, and those measures remain in place,” May said.

Also noting Britain’s leading role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Europe and sanctions against Moscow in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, she added, “We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.”

During the Commons debate that followed, one Conservative lawmaker called the incident a “warlike act” and another, former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, described Russia as being “as close to being a rogue state as any.”

Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, a committed socialist, condemned the incident but also advised against severing ties with Moscow.

“We need continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues – both domestic and international – currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and, potentially, even more dangerous,” he said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow