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Britain's Johnson Says Putin Probably Behind Ex-Spy Attack, Kremlin Lashes Out

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (file photo)

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said it is "overwhelmingly likely" that Russian President Vladimir Putin made the decision to use a highly toxic chemical against a former double agent in England, prompting a swift and angry response from the Kremlin.

"We have nothing against the Russians themselves. There is to be no Russophobia as a result of what is happening," Johnson said on March 16, nearly two weeks after former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were exposed to what British authorities say was a potent nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union.

"Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision -- and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision -- to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K, on the streets of Europe for the first time since the Second World War," Johnson said.

It marks the first time a high-level official has clearly specified that Putin may have ordered the poisoning, which police are treating as attempted murder.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said shortly afterwards that any suggestion that Putin was involved is "a shocking and unforgivable breach of the diplomatic rules of decent behavior." He repeated the Kremlin's claim that "Russia has nothing to do with this story."

Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would kick British diplomats out of the country in response to Britain's expulsion of 23 Russians it said were working as spies under diplomatic cover.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Astana on March 16.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Astana on March 16.

Asked by a reporter in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana, on March 16 whether Russia would expel British diplomats, Lavrov responded: "Of course we will," but did not say when or how many.

Peskov later told reporters that Russia's response to the British measures could come "at any minute." He also gave no details, saying only that Russia's retaliation would be "well thought out" and "fully in line with the interests of country.'

Britain blames Russia for what it says was an attempt to kill former Russian double agent Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33. The two were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping mall in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4. They remain hospitalized in critical condition.

In addition to expelling 23 diplomats who Prime Minister Theresa May said were spies, she said on May 14 that Britain would suspend all planned high-level bilateral contacts with Russia, revoking an invitation for Lavrov to visit, and that British ministers and the royal family would not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.

May said Britain would also freeze Russian state assets wherever there is evidence of a threat, and it would seek to strengthen its power to impose sanctions over human rights violations.

Anger over the incident has added to persistent tensions between Russia and the West over a host of issues including Russia's aggression in Ukraine and its alleged interference in elections in the United Sates and other Western countries.

It has cast a shadow over a March 18 election in which Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, seems certain to secure a new six-year term.

In a joint statement with Britain on March 15, the leaders of the United States, France, and Germany condemned the attack as "an assault on UK sovereignty."

"This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War,” the leaders said.

'Unacceptable' Attack

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that "it certainly looks like" Russia was behind the nerve-agent exposure, which also left a police officer hospitalized.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the "unacceptable" attack in Salisbury occurred "against the backdrop of a reckless pattern of Russian behavior over many years."

In another foreign response, New Zealand said on March 16 that it was putting plans to pursue a free-trade deal with Russia on hold.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters said in a joint statement that there was no plausible explanation other than the poison came from Russia.

New Zealand first started negotiating a deal with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in 2010, but the negotiations were suspended in 2014 after Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

In Britain, meanwhile, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn warned against rushing into a "new cold war" with Russia and suggested more evidence of Russia's culpability is needed.

"To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police...serves neither justice nor our national security," Corbyn wrote in The Guardian.

Corbyn said the Labour Party does not support Russian President Vladimir Putin and that Russia should be held to account if it was behind the attack.

"That does not mean we should resign ourselves to a 'new cold war' of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent," he wrote.

British officials say they have determined that the toxin used in Salisbury was one of a series of nerve agents that were developed in the late Soviet era and are known by the collective name Novichok.

May put the blame squarely on Russia on March 14, after Moscow failed to respond to a deadline she set for an explanation of how the substance got there.

Lavrov and other Russian officials have denied Moscow was involved and accused British officials and media of whipping up anti-Russian "hysteria."

Citing unnamed "senior sources," British newspaper The Telegraph reported on March 16 that intelligence agencies believe the nerve agent was planted in Yulia Skripal's suitcase before she left Moscow for Britain recently to visit her father.

Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence colonel, was convicted of treason in 2006 for passing the identities of Russian intelligence agents to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents uncovered in the United States, including Anna Chapman.

With reporting by RIA, TASS, Interfax, AP, Reuters, AFP, and The Telegraph