Russia warned the UK not to threaten a nuclear power last night as tensions mounted ahead of an announcement today of tough new measures against the Kremlin over the use of a nerve agent on British soil.
The Kremlin hit back at a demand to explain its involvement in the poisoning of Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, demanding access to samples of the nerve agent identified by UK investigators.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Russia was “not to blame” for the attack and summoned the UK Ambassador in Moscow to protest against a deadline set by Theresa May of midnight last night.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “Who does Britain think it is, issuing ultimatums to a nuclear power?”
The government will decide on what new sanctions will be imposed following a meeting of the National Security Committee today. The UK is expected to expel a number of Russian diplomats and impose new restrictions on the movement of Russian money.
Mrs May told the regular weekly meeting of Cabinet at 10 Downing Street that there was “no doubt of the severity of what had taken place in Salisbury, which was a reckless, indiscriminate and despicable act”.
The UK’s representative at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told delegates yesterday that the use of a nerve agent from the Novichok family of Soviet-developed chemical weapons was “the first offensive use of a nerve agent of any sort on European territory since World War Two”.
Donald Trump told Mrs May in a phone call the US is “with the UK all the way” following a turbulent day in Washington that saw the President fire his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, hours after he backed the Prime Minister’s claim that Russia’s involvement in the Salisbury attack was “highly likely”.
Mr Tillerson had been the most senior Trump administration figure to agree that the nerve agent used in the attack “clearly came from Russia”.
Mr Trump said he and Mr Tillerson “disagreed on things” including the nuclear arms deal with Iran, noting that the Secretary of State “felt a little bit differently, so we were not really thinking the same”.
He said he made the decision to sack his secretary of state “by myself” and suggested Mr Tillerson will be “much happier now” .
A senior State Department official said Mr Trump never explained to Mr Tillerson the reason why he was fired.
The under-secretary of state for public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, said Mr Tillerson “had every intention of staying” in the job because he felt he was making critical progress in national security.
Two White House officials have said Mr Tillerson was told he was out on Friday, but Mr Goldstein said he “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason”. Hours later, Mr Goldstein was himself fired.
Following the telephone call with the White House, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister set out the conclusion reached by the UK Government that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
“President Trump said the US was with the UK all the way, agreeing that the Russian government must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used.”
Despite the White House initially refusing to be drawn on Russia’s involvement in the attack following Mrs May’s statement to parliament on Monday, Mr Trump told reporters: “It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
The former chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes said it appeared that Mr Tillerson may have suspected he was about to be sacked at the time he made his statement backing the UK.
“It looks as though he used one of his last acts in post to do the right thing and say the right thing about the attempted murders in Salisbury,” Mr Gapes said.
Mrs May also continued to build support for her stand against Russia with European allies, speaking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone last night following a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday.
Downing Street said Mrs Merkel “condemned the attack and said she stood in full solidarity with the UK”.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted the UK was not seeking to “demonise” Russia, telling international broadcasters: “Russia is a great country. It is a great pity therefore that the Russian regime seems to be moving in this dangerous and disruptive direction.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, housing minister Dominic Raab said Mrs May had used her words “very carefully” in Monday’s Commons statement.
“The words ‘unlawful use of force’ have a different meaning in international law from an armed attack,” Mr Raab said. “The range [of measures] would I believe extend to and include: diplomatic measures, financial measures, economic measures and issues around visa bans and things like that.”