Britain labels Moscow’s nerve agent denials ‘increasingly absurd’

Foreign minister Boris Johnson secures strong support from EU and Nato over attack

Fresh from his election victory, Vladimir Putin dismisses allegations that Russia was behind a nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent as "total rubbish".

 

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson has denounced Moscow’s denials of involvement in the nerve weapon attack on a former Russian double agent as “increasingly absurd”.

Mr Johnson’s remarks came as he received further support from the European Union and Nato on Monday over the attack.

The secretary of state for foreign affairs discussed the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia at a session of EU foreign ministers, which he addressed. Mr Johnson also discussed the incident in a meeting with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg after statements of solidarity last week by a host of Western governments.

“Our Nato allies have shown such undivided support,” said Mr Johnson after meeting Mr Stoltenberg.

All 28 EU foreign ministers issued a joint statement on the attack, expressing “unqualified solidarity”.

“The European Union takes extremely seriously the UK government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible,” the statement noted.

Russia, including president Vladimir Putin, denies any involvement.

Mr Johnson said he saw a “classic Russian strategy” as he arrived for the EU meeting, a day after Putin was re-elected for another six-year term as president.

“They’re not fooling anybody anymore,” said Mr Johnson. “There is scarcely a country around the table here in Brussels that has not been affected in recent years by some kind of malign or disruptive Russian behaviour.”

Mr Stoltenberg echoed that position: “Russia will continue to seek to divide us.”

Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, meanwhile, accused the Russian foreign ministry of deliberately sowing confusion by suggesting the nerve agent used in the attack on the Skripals might have come from Sweden.

“This is just ridiculous and totally unfounded,” said Ms Wallstrom. “I think they are trying to divert the real issues here.”

Moscow on Saturday announced the expulsion of 23 British diplomats in a response to Britain’s decision last week to expel the same number of Russian diplomats from London.

On Sunday, Mr Johnson accused Russia of stockpiling the deadly Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok used to poison the Skripals, a charge Moscow denies.

The couple were found unconscious on a bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4th and remain in a critical condition in hospital.

Asked what support Britain had requested from the EU and Nato to counter Russia, Mr Johnson replied that he was seeking to intensify work on a range of strategies. These include defences against Russian attacks on computer networks, challenging disinformation campaigns and acting against criminal financial networks.

“There are things we can and must do together,” said Mr Johnson, adding that Britain was “going after the money that has been illicitly or corruptly obtained”, without giving details.

While there was no immediate prospect of further sanctions on Russia, British prime minister Theresa May will have an opportunity to present her case for any such measures at an EU summit on Thursday, or call for others to expel diplomats.

“We need to put pressure on Russia to take part in a real enquiry about the attack,” said Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders . – Reuters