Britain seeks EU help against Russian spies

BRUSSELS • Britain is seeking help from other European countries to take action against Russian spy networks that could be preparing attacks similar to the nerve agent assault on a former Russian spy in England, diplomats said.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May was expected to urge joint action among European Union states at a summit in Brussels yesterday, where she will also try to persuade the bloc's leaders to condemn Russia squarely over the attack in Salisbury, Reuters reported.

"Russia staged a brazen and reckless attack against the United Kingdom," Mrs May told reporters on arriving at the summit. "It's clear that the Russian threat does not respect borders and indeed the incident in Salisbury was a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours."

She accused Russia of the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II after former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in the English city on March 4.

In the worst crisis between the two powers since the Cold War, Mrs May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats who she says were spies working under cover. Moscow, which has denied involvement in the attack, has taken retaliatory steps.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said that she was already considering expelling Russian spies from her territory, according to Reuters.

"Britain says there are these networks that organise such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders, and that it would be good to go after them together," a senior EU diplomat said.

"They have been approaching EU states on that bilaterally and today May will tell EU leaders more."

Diplomats stressed that Mrs May was not seeking a formal or immediate EU strategy because the bloc has little joint competence on intelligence, meaning any such work would be done directly with other governments.

"There is movement among several willing states to do something together in reaction to Skripal," said another EU diplomat, adding that this would be done bilaterally outside the EU, so as not to press too hard those members of the bloc who are more worried about their ties with Moscow.

The British authorities say the Skripals have been critically ill since the attack with a Soviet-produced military-grade nerve agent, Novichok.

Russia's Ambassador to London, Mr Alexander Yakovenko, yesterday said that had Novichok been used, the Skripals would have died.

Speaking at a press conference at the Russian Embassy in London, Mr Yakovenko said Britain has provided no proof of Russia's alleged involvement in the nerve attack, the Anadolu Agency reported. "The burden of proof lies within the British authorities. By now, no facts have been presented either to the (international chemical weapon watchdog) OPCW, or us, or to the UK partners or to the public," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline 'Britain seeks EU help against Russian spies'. Print Edition | Subscribe