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Russia demands nerve agent samples in standoff with UK over poisoned spy

Moscow summons ambassador as foreign minister denies Russian responsibility for attack


Russia has summoned the UK’s ambassador to Moscow to protest against accusations that it ordered last week’s nerve agent attack in Salisbury and to warn that any British sanctions against Russia would be answered in kind.

Among other measures, Moscow is ready to ban all British media outlets if London revokes the state-funded Russia Today’s right to broadcast in Britain, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said on national television on Tuesday evening.

“Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they close Russia Today,” Maria Zakharova said.

A foreign ministry statement said it had summoned Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador, to also declare that Russia would not comply with Theresa May’s demand that it explain its role until the Russian government had been given samples of the nerve agent that left Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, critically ill.

“Without this, any statements by London are senseless,” the ministry said in the statement given to journalists.

May said in parliament on Monday that the UK would consider punitive measures if Russia did not meet a deadline of the end of Tuesday to explain itself. Possibilities include revoking the broadcast licence of the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, expulsions of diplomats, or greater scrutiny of Russian investments in the UK.

The Russian foreign ministry said: “Any threats to adopt ‘sanctions’ toward the Russian Federation would not remain without a response.”

With Britain and Russia at an impasse, it is likely the next steps will involve tit-for-tat reprisals between the two countries.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said during a televised press conference earlier that Russia was not responsible for the poisoning and demanded that Britain seek to mediate the case under the chemical weapons convention.

“We have already made our statement on this case,” he said. “Russia is ready to cooperate in accordance with the convention to ban chemical weapons if the United Kingdom will deign to fulfil its obligations according to the same convention.”

In his remarks, Lavrov said that under the convention, Russia would have 10 days to reply to an official accusation by the UK over the use of a banned substance within its borders.

His response reflected the broadly dismissive tone adopted by the Russian establishment on Tuesday.

“We have an enormous government here in Russia, it’s a global country, we have a mass of problems both internal and external,” Andrei Klimov, the deputy head of the Russian federation council’s foreign affairs committee, told the Guardian by telephone. “This entire story about your internal score-settlings and scandals doesn’t interest me.”

A representative of the British embassy in Moscow said Bristow would visit the Russian foreign ministry on Tuesday for talks with Vladimir Titov, the first deputy minister for foreign affairs.

May told parliament on Monday it was “highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal”. She named the poison used as novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

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Theresa May: highly likely Russia is behind Salisbury spy attack – video

Russian officials remain defiant towards the UK, at least in public, accusing Britain of succumbing to its own “Russophobia” and saying they could handle the situation however May decides to respond.

Asked whether he and colleagues would be watching when May spoke after the deadline, Klimov said: “God, no. I’m going to find out from journalists like you.”

Zakharova called May’s remarks on Monday “a circus show”. Vladimir Putin, asked by the BBC whether Russia was behind the Skripal poisoning, said: “Get to the bottom of things there first, then we’ll talk about this.”

Quick guide What is novichok? Show Hide

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries. By making the agents in secret, from unfamiliar chemicals, the Soviet Union aimed to manufacture the substances without being impeded.

“Much less is known about the novichoks than the other nerve agents,” said Alastair Hay, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Leeds who investigated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja in 1988. “They are not widely used at all.”

The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

And while the novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands, one chemical weapons expert told the Guardian that the agents do not degrade fast in the environment and have “an additional toxicity”. “That extra toxicity is not well understood, so I understand why people were asked to wash their clothes, even if it was present only in traces,” he said. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.

The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought that they can be made in different forms, including a dust aerosol that would be easy to disperse.

The novichoks are known as binary agents because they become lethal only after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than the conventional nerve agents.

The fact that so little is known about them may explain why Porton Down scientists took several days to identify the compound used in the attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. While laboratories around the world that are used to police chemical weapons incidents have databases of nerve agents, few outside Russia are believed to have full details of the novichok compounds and the chemicals needed to make them.

Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe

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The breakdown of relations with the UK comes at a sensitive time for Russia politically, with Putin set to be re-elected for a fourth term on Sunday. He is scheduled to address supporters on Wednesday in Crimea, the peninsula whose annexation from Ukraine in 2014 set off a chill in relations between Russia and the west.

Since then, Putin has survived several international scandals, including the downing of the MH17 plane over east Ukraine and accusations of meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

In some cases, the growing conflict with the west and a siege mentality at home appear to have boosted his ratings.

The Russian senator Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Tuesday that the west has regularly condemned Russia without its input. He said: “We’ve made a decision here, investigated it ourselves, delivered our own verdict and sentence. And Russia should defend itself without any evidence or participation in the process.”

No one has suggested that Russia is gathering evidence to help British investigators. Klimov argued that Russia had no motive to attack Skripal and suggested other former Soviet countries could be behind the attack.

In denying the allegations, he also issued a warning, saying: “I would just like to tell Russians who hope to hide in Great Britain from ‘bad Russians’ one thing: it’s going to be very unsafe for you. It’s long since become a place where bad things happen. This isn’t Moscow’s fault, something is happening over there.”

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