Moscow, Russian Federation, Mar 21 – US President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he would “take action to hold Russia accountable” for the poisoning of a spy on British soil, as another ugly war of words erupted between Moscow and London over the Cold War-style attack.
In a phone call with Vladimir Putin the previous day, Trump had failed to discuss the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, but congratulated the strongman on his re-election to the Russian presidency.
During a call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday, however, Trump expressed “solidarity with the United Kingdom in the wake of Russia’s use of chemical weapons against private citizens on British soil,” the White House said.
The pair “agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable,” it added, without providing further details.
Britain and its allies say Russia was behind the attack on Skripal and his daughter, who remain in a critical condition after the poisoning in the English town of Salisbury with what London says is a Soviet-designed nerve agent.
But Moscow has angrily rejected the claims and on Wednesday hosted a televised briefing for foreign diplomats at which a senior official mocked Britain’s “island mentality” and “Russophobia”.
Foreign ministry official Vladimir Yermakov said London itself could have been behind the poisoning of Skripal, a former Russian officer who sold secrets to Britain and moved there in a 2010 spy swap.
“The British authorities are either unable to ensure protection from such a… terrorist attack on its territory, or they directly or indirectly — I am not accusing anyone of anything here — directed the attack on a Russian national,” said the head of the ministry’s non-proliferation and arms control department.
The diplomat — who alternated between tough talk and quips — said in response to a question from a British official: “I am ashamed for you”.
Yermakov rejected claims the chemical weapon “Novichok” was used in the attack, saying it would have killed people on the spot and suggested that Washington might have also had a hand in it.
– Hitler comparisons –
The deepening row has already seen Britain throw out 23 Russian diplomats, prompting a tit-for-tat response from Moscow, which also closed the British Council cultural institute in Russia.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Wednesday that Russia had wanted to send “a sign” with the nerve agent attack on Skripal to warn defectors that they cannot escape Moscow’s power.
In an appearance before a committee of MPs in London, Johnson said Russia chose a target in England because of London’s record of “calling out” Moscow’s abuses.
“I think the reason that they picked the United Kingdom is very simple, it’s because this is a country that does have that particular set of values, it does believe in freedom, and in democracy and in the rule of law, and has time and again called out Russia over its abuses of those values.”
He also said Vladimir Putin was hoping to exploit Russia’s forthcoming football World Cup as a propaganda exercise, in the same way Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler used the Munich 1936 Olympics.
“(Johnson) is poisoned by hatred and malice, a lack of professionalism and therefore rudeness,” the spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry Maria Zakharova said in a Facebook post.
“It’s terrible to think that this man represents the political leadership of a nuclear power,” she said.
– Drivel, rubbish, nonsense –
Putin has dismissed allegations of Moscow’s responsibility as “drivel, rubbish, nonsense”, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday urged the British government to “respond calmly” to the Skripals’ attempted murder.
“If the British government continues taking some anti-Russian measures, we will hit back under the principle of reciprocity,” he said in Japan.
“Overall, there is no doubt that the British leadership has knowingly chosen to undermine the British-Russian relationship.”
Britain says only Russia had the capability, motive and intent to be behind the attack.