May vows to wage international campaign against Russian spy agency behind novichok attack

Theresa May has vowed that Britain will wage an international campaign to disrupt the Russian GRU spy agency behind the deadly Salisbury novichok attack.

She said the UK would use its full range of security services – including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – to expose its “malign activity” and “dismantle its networks”, after revealing how two of its agents were behind the chemical weapons incident.

The prime minister then signalled new sanctions against Russia, with government insiders suggesting key GRU figures could be targeted with travel bans and asset freezes.

The Foreign Office also hauled in the most senior Russian diplomat in the UK to explain his government’s actions, while British officials prepared to take the case to an emergency UN Security Council on Thursday.

Ahead of the meeting, Number 10 said Ms May had already discussed the matter with US President Donald Trump and was expecting further calls with other leaders.

Ms May made her pledge to target the GRU – Moscow’s foreign military intelligence directorate – in a dramatic commons statement following prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.

After explaining how a pair of under-cover agents travelled to the UK under the pseudonyms Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, she turned her sites more broadly on the GRU.

She told MPs the agency is “a threat to all our allies and to all our citizens” adding that Britain and its friends “must now step up our collective efforts, specifically against the GRU.”

Ms May said: “We are increasing our understanding of what the GRU is doing in our countries, shining a light on their activities, exposing their methods and sharing them with our allies, just as we have done with Salisbury.

“And while the house will appreciate that I cannot go into details, together with our allies we will deploy the full range of tools from across our national security apparatus in order to counter the threat posed by the GRU.”

Downing Street officials pointed to Ms May’s action to degrade the GRU’s network in the UK by expelling 23 Russian intelligence officers earlier this year, and did not rule out the possibility that new action abroad had already begun against the agency.

A Number 10 spokesman said that with the UK’s allies across the world, “we will now step up our collective efforts to disrupt and dismantle their networks.”

The government has issued EU arrest warrants and Interpol red notices so that if the two individuals step outside Russia they could be arrested by police in any country.

Britain will not call for Russia to extradite them however, with officials saying efforts to retrieve suspects in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case had shown the futility of any attempt.

In her statement Ms May said the UK would push for new EU sanctions regimes related to Russia, including against those responsible for cyber-attacks and gross human rights violations.

She also said the UK would aim for new “listings” under the existing regime against Russia, with officials later indicating this could mean specifically targeting GRU agents and officers.

The existing regime of sanctions implemented by the UK and other allies saw a range of asset freezes and travel bans placed on senior figures connected to the Russian government.

The charge d’affaires at Russia’s London embassy was summoned to the Foreign Office for a dressing-down by an official following Ms May’s statement, with ambassador Alexander Yakovenko currently out of the country.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “He was informed of the charges we have brought against two Russian citizens, the fact that they were GRU officers and of our determination that they should be brought to justice.

“We also made clear that the UK expects the Russian state to account for the reckless and outrageous actions of the GRU and that the UK expects that Russia provides a full account of its chemical weapons programme to the [international watchdog].”

Britain called a meeting of the UN Security Council for 4.30pm Thursday at which UK officials fully expect Russia to veto any attempt to reach a resolution.

Ms May spoke by phone with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following her statement to MPs, and with Mr Trump late on Tuesday night.

Officials said conversations had also taken place with French diplomats ahead of the UN meeting and that Ms May would also be speaking with other world leaders soon to discuss a joint position.

The next major international summit at which Ms May could chose to raise the issue is at the UN General Assembly later this month.

In a statement, the Russian Embassy in the UK accused the British authorities of being unwilling to engage with them and called on the government to “give up politicised public accusations”.

 The statement said: “As the UK rightfully notes, the Russian constitution prohibits extraditing Russian citizens to foreign states.

“Yet existing mechanisms of international cooperation on criminal cases are not limited to extradition. Being well aware of this, the British side has chosen to publish names and photos of the ‘suspects’, but has not provided us with any official request for assistance or any additional information (passport numbers, details of visa applications etc).

“As before, we have no access to the case file.”

Former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were left critically ill after being exposed to the military grade nerve agent novichok in March.

Although Ms May did not explicitly blame the Kremlin for authorising the attempted assassination, senior Conservatives directly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of approving the operation.

The statement added: “We reiterate our call upon the UK authorities to give up politicised public accusations and the policy of classifying evidence, to return to the legal framework and to engage properly with the Russian side. 

“We will also continue to demand that the UK delivers on its obligations under the consular conventions by allowing access of Russian representatives to Sergei and Yulia Skripal, whose situation over the last six month amoutns to forcible isolation by the British authorities.”


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