The U.K. on Friday said it is “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the poisoning of an ex-spy, upping the ante against Russia as Moscow warned it was prepared to escalate a standoff with the West.
Foreign Minister Boris Johnson’s comments mark the first time that the U.K. has specifically linked the Russian leader to the attack with a nerve agent, the first such in a North America Treaty organization ally.
The poisoning has sparked growing international anger and further isolated Russia, as U.K. allies back its assessment that Russia is culpable in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Russia has called the claim nonsense.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin and with his decision,” Mr. Johnson said. “And we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.”
Russia said it would hit back at punitive measures from the U.S. and U.K., announcing plans to expand a blacklist of Americans and to kick out British diplomats.
Mr. Putin, who is expected to win a presidential election on Sunday, has played the increasing tensions with the West to his advantage at home, presenting himself as a leader who can stand up to Europe and the U.S.
Responding to Mr. Johnson’s comment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was offensive to suggest that Mr. Putin was personally responsible.
“Any reference or mention of our president is nothing less than shocking or unforgivable from the point of view of diplomatic behavior,” he said.
President Donald Trump’s administration, which has joined in European outrage over the incident, introduced its first round of sanctions against Russia this week for Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and hacking into critical U.S. infrastructure like power grids.
The U.S. measures sanction 19 individuals and five entities, some of whom have already been hit by previous rounds, in a pointed but largely symbolic strike against the Kremlin.
Now Russia has hit back at the U.S. for the sanctions on Russians accused of election meddling by adding more Americans to its “black list,” its foreign minister said. “From the very beginning, we use the principle of parity on the number of people included in sanction lists. So we will expand our ‘black list’ with another group of Americans,” Sergei Ryabkov said Friday. Although Ryabkov didn’t specify the number of Americans added to the black list, the U.S. sanctions implicated 19 Russians, which the retaliatory sanctions are expected to match. Reuters reported Ryabkov didn’t rule out making further sanctions against the U.S. in response what is considered to be the strongest action by the Trump administration against Russia so far. “Those politicians are playing with fire by destroying Russian-American relationship because simultaneously they shake global stability,” he added.