Sergei Skripal scandal has sent UK-Russia relations tumbling. What next? | UK news

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Theresa May’s assertion that it is highly likely the Russian state has committed an act of aggression by poisoning the double agent Sergei Skripal plunges Anglo-Russian relations into their worst state since the cruise missile crisis in the 1980s.

The prime minister knows that she will have to go further than her response as home secretary to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko – some assets frozen, an end to intelligence cooperation and the expulsion of a number of Russian diplomats.

Although the UK is giving Russia 24 hours to prove the murder came about due to rogue operators gaining control of military grade nerve agent, no one expects the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, will even try to convince the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, that the Russian state simply lost control of the poison.


Theresa May: highly likely Russia is behind Salisbury spy attack – video

Trust between the UK and Russia has been in short supply for years, and it is more likely Yakovenko will say Russia is the victim of media-induced spy fever.

It will leave May with no option but to confirm that the Russian state committed an unlawful use of force against the UK. That would place the onus on the Foreign Office not just to compile an effective unilateral response, but also to gather European and American support for a multilateral measures.

1.30pm

Police have confirmed that Skripal and his daughter were in Salisbury city centre by 1.30pm. It is not known if they walked from his home or whether they drove or were driven in.

Between 1.30pm and around 4pm

Skripal and his daughter strolled around Salisbury and visited the Zizzi restaurant on Castle Street and the nearby Mill pub. They are believed to have been in Zizzi for about 40 minutes from 2.30pm.

3.47pm

A CCTV camera at Snap Fitness in Market Walk captured two people initially thought to be Skripal and his daughter. The woman appeared to be carrying a red handbag. Later it became clear the pair were probably not the Russian and his daughter. Police have been keen to speak to the couple.

4.03pm

The same camera caught personal trainer Freya Church. She turned left out of the gym and in front of her saw Skripal and the woman on a bench at the Maltings shopping centre. She said the woman had passed out and the man was behaving strangely. Church walked on.

4.08pm

Footage that emerged on Friday from a local business showed that people were still strolling casually through Market Walk.

Approx 4.15pm

A member of the public dialled 999. The Friday footage shows an emergency vehicle racing through the pedestrianised arcade shortly after 4.15pm. A paramedic also ran through. Police and paramedics worked on the couple at the scene for almost an hour in ordinary uniforms.

5.11pm

The woman was airlifted to hospital; Skripal was taken by road.

5.13pm

Images taken by a passerby show that officers were still clearly unaware of the severity of the situation. They did not have specialist protective clothing and members of the public also strolled nearby.

5.48pm

Police told Salisbury Journal they were investigating a possible drug-related incident. At about this time officers identified Skripal and his daughter and by Sunday evening they were at his home – in normal uniform or street clothes. At some point DS Nick Bailey, now seriously ill in hospital, visited the Skripal house, but it is not known where he was contaminated.

Approx 8.20pm

Officers donned protective suits to examine the bench and surrounding areas.

By 9pm

Officers were hosing themselves down. It was not until the next day that  a major incident was declared.


Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

The context of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s ambivalence towards Putin, sets a diplomatic challenge for the Foreign Office. The UK has long been the anti-Russian outrider in Europe, and Johnson’s meeting with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow in December achieved little.

European Union countries come to the Russian issue with their own agendas and commercial interests. The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, has insisted the bloc was not suffering from sanctions fatigue over Ukraine, pointing to the imminent fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The EU competitiveness council on Monday renewed the existing sanctions regime.

But Angela Merkel, the reinstalled German chancellor, said she hoped the expected re-election of Vladimir Putin this weekend might provide a moment to restart the Minsk peace process. She favours further engagement.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, on Monday fended off rare criticism of his Syrian policy from his predecessor François Hollande by defending his policy of engagement with Russia, arguing he did not think the years of complete absence of dialogue had led to any progress for France.

Equally the new Italian government, once it is formed, is likely to be influenced by the pro-Russian populist right.

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