Moscow — Russia warned Britain on Thursday that it could no longer ignore Moscow’s "legitimate" questions over a spy poisoning scandal.
"It will not be possible to ignore the legitimate questions we are asking," foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said hours before a meeting of the UN Security Council, which is due to discuss the spiraling diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West.
Britain blames Russia for the March 4 poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil with what it says was a Soviet-made, military-grade nerve agent. The crisis has led to the biggest wave of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats between Moscow and the West in recent memory.
Early on Thursday morning, about 60 US diplomats ordered out of Russia left their embassy compound in Moscow.
Russia called a meeting of the global chemical watchdog on Wednesday over the Salisbury incident, but failed in its bid to join the probe by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Russia then requested a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday at 7pm GMT in New York.
Speaking in Moscow, Lavrov called for a "substantial and responsible" probe and the "presentation of evidence", reiterating that Russia was ready for "joint work". At the same time, he alleged the Skripal case was used by Britain as "a pretext, either made up or staged, for the groundless expulsions of Russian diplomats".
President Vladimir Putin said on a visit to Ankara on Wednesday that "common sense" must prevail to avoid "this damage in international relations".
Moscow was unable to get the required two thirds of votes from members to approve a joint investigation at Wednesday’s OPCW meeting. Diplomatic sources told AFP that six countries voted in favour of the Russian draft motion but 15 were against while 17 abstained, mainly countries from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
We will not agree to Russia’s demand to conduct a joint investigation into the attack in Salisbury because the UK... has assessed that it is highly likely that the Russian state is responsible for this attack
~ John Foggo
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, said the meeting in New York would focus on a letter sent by British Prime Minister Theresa May accusing Moscow of carrying out the attempted assassination. Wednesday’s bid to secure a joint probe saw a day of bitter rhetoric between Moscow and Britain and its western allies. London slammed the joint probe idea as "perverse".
"We will not agree to Russia’s demand to conduct a joint investigation into the attack in Salisbury because the UK — supported by many other countries — has assessed that it is highly likely that the Russian state is responsible for this attack," British chemical arms expert John Foggo told the OPCW’s governing executive council.
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson hailed the defeat of Russia’s bid. "The purpose of Russia’s ludicrous proposal at The Hague was clear: to undermine the independent, impartial work of the international chemical weapons watchdog," he said, adding Moscow’s main goal was "to obscure the truth and confuse the public".
Bulgaria’s ambassador Krassimir Kostov, speaking on behalf of the EU, said the EU had "full confidence in the UK investigation". Britain is carrying out its own probe, with independent technical assistance from OPCW experts.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence, warned on Wednesday that both sides must avoid tensions escalating to the dangerous levels of the Cold War. Accusations of Moscow engineering the attack were a "grotesque provocation ... crudely concocted by the British and American security services," he said, adding it was important not to bring matters to a new Cuban Missile Crisis, referring to the 1962 stand-off between the Soviet Union and the US.
OPCW experts have already taken on-site samples, which are being analysed in The Hague, as well as in four other certified laboratories. The watchdog said it expected the results by early next week.
British expert Foggo told the OPCW meeting that Russia was dodging all of London’s questions, and had made a series of "shameless, preposterous" statements. "Russia’s refusal to accept the results of the OPCW’s investigation unless Russian experts participate in it suggests that Russia is .... nervous about what the results will show."
But in a move hailed as a vindication by Moscow, the British defence laboratory at Porton Down analysing the nerve agent revealed on Tuesday that it could not say whether the substance came from Russia. The Kremlin immediately demanded an apology from May and her government, which implicated Putin in the nerve-agent attack, saying this "idiocy has gone too far".