U.K.'s May to Huddle With Trump on Russia Role in Poisoning

(Bloomberg) -- With the clock ticking on Russia to come clean about its involvement in poisoning a former spy on British soil, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will consult her closest ally on how to retaliate.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he’d be speaking with May about the March 4 assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury, England. While he acknowledged Russia was likely to blame, he -- like May’s European allies -- has so far stopped short of promising to get involved.

"It sounds to me like it was Russia based on all the evidence they have," Trump said about the attack as he left the White House Tuesday morning. "We’re going to be speaking with Theresa May today and as soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with that, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be."

May has given Russia until midnight tonight to reveal its involvement in the attack or face punitive measures, which she’s been trying to rally allies to support. She’s under pressure to satisfy domestic critics that the U.K. has done enough. Failure could tarnish her credibility as she struggles to garner support, even within her own party, for a bill to leave the European Union.

U.K. Isolation

Skripal, once an informant for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and his daughter, were found unconscious on a park bench and a police officer who helped them is in serious condition in hospital. The military-grade nerve agent used in the attack, called Novichok, was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s.

“It’s an interesting test-case in the midst of Brexit of the extent to which the U.K. is isolated,’’ said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “We’ve not made many friends recently and our relationship with the U.S. is more uncertain.’’

While May said the U.K. would "not tolerate such a brazen act to murder innocent civilians on our soil," her ultimatum elicited only denials and mockery from the Russians.

“This is all nonsense, we’ve got nothing to do with this,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on Tuesday. His deputy, Vladimir Titov, later told U.K. Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow that threats of sanctions “won’t be left without response,” according to a statement on the ministry’s website.

Double Agent

Skripal, 66, spied for the U.K. for a decade while working for Russian military intelligence. He was sent to Britain in 2010 in a spy swap. In a state-television documentary released Sunday, Putin said he can never forgive treachery.

The assassination attempt is sensitive for the U.K. because the country has historically been loathe to take substantive measures against Russia for attacks on its soil. Its response to the 2006 murder of Russian Alexander Litvinenko, for instance, was widely derided as toothless.

Germany regards the attack as “a matter between Britain and Russia,” according to Michael Grosse-Broemer, parliamentary whip for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party bloc. In a phone call on Tuesday, Merkel told May she takes U.K. government’s assessment of alleged Russian role in the Salisbury attack “very seriously" and pressed Russia to provide answers.

Before he was fired on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson branded Russia an “irresponsible force of instability in the world” and said those who ordered and carried out the crime must face consequences.

Reprisal Options

There’s little the U.K. can do alone. Russia expects diplomatic expulsions, but pan-national sanctions would involve months of lengthy negotiations with other countries. More drastic measures such as cutting Russian banks off from SWIFT, a global messaging system that facilitates the transfer of payments between thousands of banks, are unlikely, one person close to the Kremlin said.

Britain hasn’t been in touch with SWIFT and, in any case, the organization wouldn’t disconnect banks unless EU members decided unanimously to impose sanctions and directed financial messaging providers to isolate a national banking network, as happened with Iran in 2012.

Several EU states are seeking a joint response, according to an EU official, who asked not to be named as no decisions have been taken yet. EU foreign ministers will discuss the incident when they meet in Brussels March 19, the official said.

May does have some leverage even alone if she targets those close to President Vladimir Putin who have unexplained wealth in the U.K. There’s an “extraordinary number’’ of Russian officials who use the U.K. education system, live in London’s expensive districts and have made their homes in the city, sometimes dubbed Londongrad, according to Nixey from Chatham House.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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