U.K. warns Russia as former spy is found unconscious

Echoes of Litvinenko poisoning in 2006, says Boris Johnson

March 06, 2018 09:59 pm | Updated March 07, 2018 12:26 am IST - London

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal.

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal.

Britain’s already poor relations with Russia threatened to deteriorate rapidly on Tuesday, as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson labelled Russia a “malign and disruptive force” after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent currently living in Britain, was found unconscious after suspected exposure to an unknown substance .

Mr. Johnson also warned that the United Kingdom would take whatever action was necessary should “suspicions” of Russian state involvement in the predicament of Mr. Skripal and his daughter Yulia, both of whom remain in critical condition after falling ill in the south-west English city of Salisbury, prove correct.

He said that with investigations into the events that led to Mr. Skripal, 66, and Ms. Yulia, 33, being found unconscious in a bench still ongoing, it would be “wrong to prejudge” the situation or speculate on the precise nature of the “crime”. However, he acknowledged “echoes” of the death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in November 2006.

“No attempt to take innocent life British soil will go unsanctioned and unpunished,” he told MPs as he responded to an emergency question in the House of Commons on the unfolding situation.

Jailed in 2006

Mr. Skripal was jailed in Russia for spying for the U.K. in 2006, and freed as part of a spy swap between the U.S. and Russia in 2010 that took place in Vienna that exchanged four Western agents for 10 Russian agents.

Counterterrorism police and others have been involved in the latest investigation, which has been ongoing since Wiltshire Police discovered the two unconscious on a bench in the Maltings shopping arcade on Sunday afternoon, following a call from a concerned member of the public.

‘Unknown substance’

The two are being treated for suspected exposure to an unknown substance. Both remained in critical condition, as police forces sealed off a number of sites including Zizzi, an Italian chain restaurant, and a pub in the shopping centre. “We cannot confirm how long these cordons will remain in place,” police said.

British media were quick to draw parallels with the death of Litvinenko, who died in November 2006, three weeks after falling ill from poisoning by radioactive Polonium 210 in London.

A public inquiry published in 2016 concluded that Litvinenko had been poisoned by two agents acting “under the direction of the FSB” and that the “FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by [former FSB director] Mr.[Nikolai] Patrushev and also by President [Vladimir] Putin”.

“We are seeing a pattern in Russian behaviour,” said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, pointing to a 2017 report by Buzzfeed that highlighted 14 suspicious deaths in the U.K. that allegedly pointed to Russian state involvement.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged that Russia was engaged in “malign” activities that stretched from the “murder” of journalists to the “mysterious assassination of politicians” and said that should the current investigation conclude that the state was responsible, Britain would review its existing sanctions regime.

Mr. Johnson also rejected the suggestion that the situation was similar to the “existential” threat posed during the 1970s and 1980s — the period of Cold War — but acknowledged that Russia only respected “force” which made it essential for the West to maintain a forward presence to its eastern border, and enforce its tough sanctions regime that followed the annexation of Crimea.

Pressure is also building on the government for full-fledged legislation similar to the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act of 2012. The act allows the American government to impose visa bans and financial sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world determined to be responsible for human rights abuses and corrupt acts.

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