Russia has issued a thinly veiled threat after Britain gave it a deadline to answer accusations of involvement in a poisoning attack in Salisbury, but US and EU allies have expressed support for Britain condemning the attack.
Prime Minister Theresa May had given Russia until midnight on Tuesday to explain how a Soviet-era nerve agent was used against a former Russian double agent.
Denying it had played any part in the attack, which left 66-year-old former spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter fighting for their lives, Russia said it would ignore the ultimatum until London handed over samples of the nerve agent used and complied with international obligations for joint investigations of such incidents.
“Any threats to take ‘sanctions’ against Russia will not be left without a response,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. “The British side should understand that.”
Speaking in an interview on state television, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned the UK not to threaten Russia.
“Bearing in mind what the President [Vladimir Putin] said [in his State of the Nation Address], no-one can appear in his or her country’s parliament to say ‘I give Russia 24 hours,'” she told the Rossiya-1 television channel.
“Do not (try to) scare us.”
Mr Putin had used his State of the Nation address to boast about Russia’s new array of nuclear weapons, saying: “You have failed to contain Russia. No-one has listened to us. You listen to us now”.
Ms Zakharova also warned against any possible suspension of Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster Russia Today (RT).
“Not a single British media outlet will work in our country if they shut down Russia Today,” she said.
That comment came after Britain’s broadcasting watchdog Ofcom said any ruling that Russia had been behind the poisoning of double agent Segeri Skripal would be taken into account when assessing RT’s licence to operate in the UK.
Ms May, who said on Monday it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter, won support from some of Britain’s main European allies and the European Union which denounced the attack as “shocking” and offered help to track down those responsible.
With Britain ‘all the way’
US President Donald Trump said he would condemn Russia if British evidence incriminated Moscow in Mr Skripal’s poisoning.
In a telephone call with Ms May on Tuesday, he said he was with Britain “all the way”, according to a statement from Ms May’s office.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr Trump acknowledged the British charges of involvement against Russia, but said he needed to talk to Ms May before rendering a judgment.
“As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” said Mr Trump, who earlier fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after a series of policy rifts, said.
“It sounds to me like they believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s new coalition also expressed solidarity as the UK headed into a showdown with Mr Putin.
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the US-led NATO alliance, said the attack was “horrendous”.
Russia is in the run-up to a presidential election on Sunday in which President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, is expected to coast to a fourth term in the Kremlin.
Mr Skripal, a former officer with Russian military intelligence, betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before being arrested in Moscow and jailed in 2006.
He was released under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain where he had been living quietly in the cathedral city of Salisbury until he and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench there on March 4.
A British policeman who went to the aid of Mr Skripal was also affected by the nerve agent. He is now conscious in a serious but stable condition.