WASHINGTON – Western countries weighed punitive actions against Russia following a chemical attack in England, which has heightened international tensions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describing the act as despicable Wednesday.
His comments came as the United Kingdom expelled 23 Russian diplomats believed to be involved in espionage, cancelled an invitation to Russia’s foreign minister, announced the royals would not attend this summer’s World Cup in Russia and promised other secret retaliation.
The Russian government responded by angrily accusing western countries of besmirching its reputation with unproven allegations of its role in a poisoning plot.
The Russians are accused of using a nerve agent to try killing former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, with wider-ranging effects on a number of British citizens who happened to be in the area.
“The attack is despicable,” Trudeau said Wednesday in Regina. “Russia’s likely involvement in this is also absolutely unacceptable and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms.”
Trudeau said he spoke with Prime Minister Theresa May to offer Canada’s support.
This after Moscow ignored a midnight deadline to explain how the nerve agent Novichok, developed by the Soviet Union, was used against Skripal, who was convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter.
They remain in critical condition in a hospital in Salisbury, southwestern England, after being found unconscious March 4.
The Russian government has aggressively pushed back on the accusations. It promised responses to any measures, including threatening to boot foreign media from Russia should steps be taken against the propaganda network Russia Today.
Of the British measures it said: ”Our response will not be long in coming.”
Russia also issued a statement after being condemned by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland: ”We regret (her) hasty support for the unfounded and unacceptable accusations … The British blame game based on the word ‘likely’, but not on trustworthy investigation, hard facts and proper international procedures, is highly reprehensible and extremely counterproductive.”
The United States promised to stand with its ally.
President Donald Trump said he would accept the UK’s conclusions. Other members of his administration have been more forceful in public statements. At the United Nations, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley called it a critical moment for the world body.
Haley said a failure to respond now could embolden Russia and other bad actors to use chemicals in similar attacks anywhere in the world.
“They could be used here in New York. Or in any city or country that sits on this council,” Haley said.
“This is a defining moment … The credibility of this (UN Security) Council will not survive if we fail to hold Russia accountable.”
The NATO military alliance demanded answers from Russia.
One analyst said it’s unlikely that the body would apply its famous Article 5. The common-defence provision invoked after the 9-11 attacks in invading Afghanistan would be highly risky in this case, said Stephen Saideman of Carleton University’s Paterson School of International Affairs.
He said it would risk a damaging split in the alliance, might not lead to concrete actions even if adopted, and alternatively risk a severe escalation.
“(It) sounds very warlike,” Saideman said. “I don’t think the Brits want to start a war … I expect consultations to lead to a common response. I’d love to see a boycott of the World Cup but I doubt that will happen.”
He said another possibility is exposing the financial secrets of pro-Putin Russian oligarchs.
Such disclosures were among the measures reportedly contemplated, and abandoned, by the Obama administration to punish Russian election-meddling in 2016.
A former U.S. diplomat urged a more public response.
He said countries need to begin by publicly revealing what they know about Russian spies, and if that fails to deter Vladimir Putin, to start exposing the financial secrets of his allegedly corrupt inner circle.
“The gloves need to come off,” said Brett Bruen, who worked in the Obama White House.
“The response to date has been too slow and on too small a scale … The world is watching … We’ve seen over the last five years a steady escalation in Russia’s strategic warfare. It is beyond time for the West to wake up and put a stop to these kinds of actions.”
He said NATO’s Article 5 could be applied in this case.