Britain to seek EU condemnation of Russia over spy attack

A handout photo made available by the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) showing personnel from the British Army Falcon Squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment, supported by Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) personnel, prepare a potentially contaminated vehicle for removal in Salisbury, southern England, 14 March 2018. [Handout photo/EPA/EFE]

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will seek a united condemnation of Russia by EU leaders on Thursday (22 March) over what London says was a nerve agent attack in England directed by Moscow.

At a European Council summit in Brussels, May is set to push for a statement from fellow EU leaders blaming Moscow for the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4, which would go further than the bloc’s initial response this week.

“Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner,” a senior British official told Reuters who added that Britain was not seeking new economic sanctions on Russia.

May has accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since the Second World War and expelled 23 Russians whom she said were spies working under diplomatic cover.

Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter and retaliated by expelling 23 British diplomats and closing the British Council in Russia.

At the summit, May will seek to show European Union governments that all Western countries are vulnerable from such attacks, as well as what NATO says is a Russian strategy to undermine the West, officials said.

“The Russia threat does not respect borders and as such we are all at risk,” a second senior British official said.

Rasmussen: EU summit should send Putin a clear message

Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the EU should show solidarity with the UK not only with words, but also with increased sanctions.

Reluctance from Greece, Hungary

But May will need to overcome reluctance from Russia’s closest allies in the European Union, Greece and Hungary, who on Monday held back EU foreign ministers from laying the blame fully at Russia’s door in a special joint statement.

Britain’s allies in Europe hope that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be more open than his foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, who diplomats said refused stronger language on Monday linking Moscow to the toxin attack.

According to a draft of the EU summit statement seen by Reuters, leaders will take “extremely seriously the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible.”

One EU diplomat said that at the summit, there was “a general ambition to go beyond that wording,” which was very similar in tone to the EU foreign ministers’ statement.

No new Russia sanctions, or Tusk letter to Putin

Theresa May will update fellow EU leaders on the Salisbury spy attack on Thursday evening but has not requested any further sanctions on Russia following the attack, an EU official has said.

On Wednesday, European Council President Donald Tusk said that it was “clear we should improve our preparedness for future attacks.”

One senior EU diplomat said that for some governments, the lack of direct proof of Russian involvement was a problem.

Senior British officials have told Reuters they concluded Russia was responsible because the nerve agent was a Soviet-era toxin and because the attack follows a pattern of Russian behaviour, including so-called “hybrid” attacks on the West including covert action and disinformation campaigns.

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