(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s top diplomat pointed the finger directly at Vladimir Putin, saying it was “overwhelmingly likely” that he personally ordered the nerve-agent attack on British soil.
In a rapid escalation of a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the U.K.’s problem was not with the Russian people but with the Russian leader.
His intervention came the same day as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was willing to support the U.K.’s investigation into the poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and London police said that a Russian man found dead this week had been murdered.
“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 World War II,” Johnson said in west London.
Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats Wednesday in response to the poisoning of the former spy in southwest England, and Britain is waiting on the Kremlin’s response, which is expected to include tit-for-tat expulsions as the two countries trade barbs over the apparent attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
“We have said on different levels and occasions that Russia has nothing to do with this story,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a text message responding to Johnson’s claim. “Any reference or mentioning of our President is nothing else but shocking and unpardonable diplomatic misconduct.”
The diplomatic tension increased further Friday afternoon when London’s Metropolitan Police said it is treating as murder the death of Nikolai Glushkov, a close associate of Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky -- a one-time billionaire who was himself found hanging dead in 2013 in his house outside London.
Glushkov, 68, was found dead at his home in the southwest of the U.K. capital on March 12. An autopsy showed he died from “compression to the neck,” the police said in a statement, adding that there was no evidence he had been poisoned or to link his death to the attack on the Skripals.
“The Met Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, which has led the investigation from the outset, is now treating Mr. Glushkov’s death as murder,” the statement said. “The command is retaining primacy for the investigation because of the associations Mr. Glushkov is believed to have had."
Earlier, the Russian Investigative Committee said it was also opening a criminal case into Glushkov’s death, describing it as “murder.” It will also probe the attack on Yulia Skripal, it said in a statement on its website.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Britain of breaching international law in its investigation of the attack on the Skripals in the city of Salisbury. May said the agent used has been identified by British scientists as Novichok, which was developed in the Soviet Union.
“Britain’s failure to cooperate on the Skripal poisoning is a major violation of chemical weapons convention,” Lavrov said in comments attributed to him and posted on Twitter by the Russian Embassy in London. “The situation will rest on the conscience of those who started this reckless gamble.”
Britain says it’s invited Russia to cooperate in the probe and that this invitation hasn’t been taken up. In a statement late Friday, May’s office said the OPCW agreed to travel to Britain to collect a sample of the nerve agent.
Putin continues to campaign ahead of Sunday’s elections, which he is expected to win. The attack on Skripal and his daughter has brought relations between Russia and the U.K. to their lowest since the end of the Cold War.
May told lawmakers Wednesday that Russia’s sarcasm, contempt and defiance in the face of allegations that it was behind the use of a military-grade nerve agent added to the evidence that it was to blame.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, urged the British government not to jump to conclusions about the source of the attack, suggesting it may have been carried out by Russian gangsters who had managed to get hold of a stolen supply of the agent.
“To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security,” Corbyn wrote in the Guardian newspaper. While “Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence,” he said, “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.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.