Donald Trump has stated Russia looks likely to be behind the poisoning of a former double agent on UK soil.
The US President, who has been accused of not giving his full backing to a Nato ally in the days after the attack, said he was in deep discussions with Theresa May.
He told reporters: ‘I spoke with the Prime Minister [Theresa May]. We are in deep discussion; a very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. We’re taking it very seriously as, I think, are many others.’
His comments come after the UK, US, France and Germany released a joint statement condemning ‘the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.’
Donald Trump says "it looks like" Russia was behind the Salisbury attack pic.twitter.com/CF7VNhiryy
— Sky News (@SkyNews) March 15, 2018
The allies said that there was ‘no plausible alternative explanation’ other than direct culpability from Moscow for the attack against double agent Sergei Skripal.
The statement called the military-grade nerve agent attack ‘an assault on UK sovereignty’ and ‘a breach of international law’.
The Prime Minister visited the site of the attack earlier today. She said: ‘We do hold Russia culpable for this brazen and despicable act.’
Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, Wiltshire, on March 4.
Police and MI5 are to look into allegations that a string of other deaths on UK soil may be linked to Russia.
Russia has said it will expel a number of British diplomats in retaliation to Mrs May’s raft of measures in response to the poisoning of the former spy on UK soil.
Moscow, which denies using the nerve agent, made clear its own retaliatory measure on Wednesday morning.
Their response came just hours after Boris Johnson ratcheted up the war of words by saying Moscow’s ‘smug’ response revealed their guilt.
The UK announced it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats yesterday after a deadline passed for President Putin to explain how a Russian nerve agent was used on Skripal on the streets of Salisbury.
In response, Russia’s Foreign ministry condemned the ‘absolutely insane accusations made by the UK prime minister against Russia’.
It added that diplomatic notes sent to the Foreign Office had received replies that “made no sense”.
It is thought President Putin will take the final decision as to when retaliatory measures will be taken.
Amid heated debate at a UN meeting on Wednesday night, the US positioned itself full-square behind the UK, describing the use of chemical weapons in Britain as a ‘defining moment’.
May takes aim
In a speech to MPs on Wednesday the PM announced the measures she would be taking and accused Russia of responding to her demands for an explanation with ‘sarcasm, contempt and defiance’.
She said Russia had failed to provide any ‘credible’ explanation of events and of why it had ‘an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law’.
Taking aim at President Putin directly, she added: ‘It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way. But we will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian Government.’
She stated the UK would:
expel 23 diplomats, giving them one week to leave the country
create new powers to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border.
ask the Home Secretary to look at new counter-espionage powers to “clamp down on the full spectrum of hostile activities of foreign agents in our country”.
take immediate actions to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK
increased checks on private flights, customs and freight traffic to track those visiting the country
freeze Russian state assets wherever there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites
Russia fires back
Russia initially responded by describing Mrs May’s statement as ‘an unprecedentedly rude provocation that undermines the foundations of a normal interstate dialogue between our countries’.
The embassy also hit back with a clear nod to the cold war in a tweet that read: “The temperature of Russia-UK relations drops to minus-23, but we are not afraid of cold weather.”
The temperature of relations drops to ➖2️⃣3️⃣, but we are not afraid of cold weather. pic.twitter.com/mand9YyoaE
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) March 14, 2018
It added: ‘We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted. All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain.’
And at the UN meeting, UN Security Council representative Vasily Nebenzya condemned the ‘completely irresponsible statements’ and ‘threats against a permanent member of the UN Security Council’.
Moscow has now made their retaliation clear, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the expulsions would happen ‘soon. I promise you that’.
Boris’s ‘smug’ comments
Boris Johnson has called for Britain’s allies to support its stand against Russia as the UK braced for retaliation for expelling Kremlin diplomats en masse.
The Foreign Secretary said “all responsible nations” shared an obligation to take on Russian aggression that “threatens the very architecture of global security”.
Writing in the Washington Post, Mr Johnson also said the poison used in the Salisbury spy attack was specifically chosen to send a message to political dissenters challenging Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“All responsible nations share an obligation to take a principled stance against this behaviour,” he said.
“The countermeasures announced by the Prime Minister are not solely about the attack in Salisbury.
“Britain is striving to uphold the rules on which the safety of every country depends. I hope and believe that our friends will stand alongside us.”
Britain’s coherent response has been undermined by frictions on the Labour benches.
Jeremy Corbyn received fierce criticism from Conservatives and some of his own MPs after his team raised doubts about who was responsible for the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
The Labour leader was pressed on the issue today, with a reporter asking about comments by his shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith, who has said “it would have been easier for us” if the Labour leader had made it clear he backed the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats over the attack.
Mr Corbyn told reporters: “I was extremely definite yesterday that I totally condemn this attack. The perpetrators must be brought to justice.
“What I was asking was questions, questions about the identity of the weapon, questions about the reference to the weapons convention and also the support of other allies. That’s what Oppositions are there for.”
A group of Labour backbenchers had said it “unequivocally accepts” the Russian state’s culpability for the incident, while Theresa May said it was “outrageous” that Mr Corbyn’s spokesman had said there was a “problematic” history over the use of UK intelligence.
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‘A defining moment’
At a meeting of the UN Security Council called to discuss the incident in Salisbury, the US ambassador to the world body, Nikki Haley, gave little ambiguity in her support for the UK. She said: ‘Let me make one thing clear from the very beginning. The United States stands in absolute solidarity with Great Britain.
‘The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent. Dozens of civilians and first responders were also exposed.
‘No two nations enjoy a stronger bond than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Ours is truly a special relationship. When our friends in Great Britain face a challenge, the United States will always be there for them. Always.
‘If we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used.
‘They could be used here in New York, or in cities of any country that sits on this council. This is a defining moment.’
Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the country’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, have issued a joint statement saying the country is “considering its responses in support of the United Kingdom” over the Salisbury incident.
Ongoing nerve agent risks
One of the inventors of the nerve agent used in the attack has warned that tiny traces of the chemical could put hundreds of people at risk for years to come.
Dr Vil Mirzayanov was part of the team that developed Novichok in a Russian chemical weapons institute.
He later became so concerned about the damage it could cause he became a whistleblower and fled to America.
He told Sky News: ‘It’s the same as nerve gas but 10 times, at least 10 times, more powerful.’
The chemist warned that symptoms could develop even years after exposure to the substance, and that there is no cure.