US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the poisoning of an ex-spy in the UK “clearly came from Russia” and vowed it “will trigger a response” as Theresa May’s allies swung behind the Prime Minister.
On Monday, May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a Russian former double agent and his daughter, and named the deadly Soviet Union-era chemical weapon Novichok as the substance deployed.
Tillerson told reporters he didn’t know whether Russia’s government had knowledge of the poisoning, but said it couldn’t have originated from anywhere else.
He added: “We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.”
In a statement, Tillerson added:
“The United States was in touch with our allies in the United Kingdom ahead of today’s announcement, including in a call between Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Johnson this morning.
“We have full confidence in the UK’s investigation and its assessment that Russia was likely responsible for the nerve agent attack that took place in Salisbury last week.
“There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behaviour.
“From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.
“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences.
“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”
The British government has given the Kremlin until the end of Tuesday to provide a “credible” response to the chemical weapons watchdog after the Prime Minister blamed Russia for an “indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom”.
If Britain decides to act against Vladimir Putin, May will have a range of options to choose from, including expelling diplomats and pushing for a co-ordinated response from the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).
Russia is already facing economic sanctions by the EU and other nations over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
The more robust response will require the support of the UK allies.
Late on Monday night, May spoke on the telephone to French President Emmanuel Macron, who “condemned” the poisoning and offered “solidarity”.
“They discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it,” a Downing Street spokesman said, adding: “They agreed that the French and British governments should coordinate closely as the investigation developed and following Russia’s response.”
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and “this incident is of great concern to Nato”.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that the allies “agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”, and if such an attack occurs, they will take action as necessary “including the use of armed force”.
European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans tweeted that he “followed closely” May’s speech. “We stand with you,” he wrote.
Before Tillerson’s comments, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said US President Donald Trump’s administration stood by America’s “closest ally”.
In a briefing, Sanders said: “We’ve been monitoring the incident closely, taking it very seriously. The use of a highly lethal nerve agent against UK citizens on UK soil is an outrage.
“The attack was reckless, indiscriminate and irresponsible. We offer the fullest condemnation and we extend our sympathy to the victims and their families and our support to the UK Government.
“We stand by our closest ally and the special relationship that we have.”
But she did not name Russia when asked directly if she was saying Russia was behind the attack.
Russia’s foreign ministry hit back immediately, saying May’s comments were a “circus show” and part of a political information campaign against Russia.
Speaking in the Commons, the prime minister said: “We will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.
“Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.”
May said Russia’s ambassador in London had been summoned to the Foreign Office to explain whether the attack was “a direct action by the Russian state” or the result of the Russian Government “losing control” of its stock of nerve agents.
Boris Johnson has told the Russian ambassador that Moscow must “immediately provide full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok nerve gas programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Whitehall sources told HuffPost that the Foreign Secretary’s meeting with Alexander Yakovenko was “frosty”. He was summoned to the Foreign Office at 3.45pm for a face-to-face, five minute meeting.
Johnson’s tone was described as “cool” and no handshake took place. During the meeting he expressed “the outrage felt by the British public” and the “reckless disregard for public safety”.
No10 sources said that a response was requested by midnight on Tuesday to the UK’s demands for an explanation.
A meeting of the UK National Security Council will take place on Wednesday to discuss the British response and May will update the Commons with her next steps during Prime Minister’s Question time that day.