Russia has likened the British government to the “hapless” police inspector in the Sherlock Holmes books as it made an extraordinary denial of involvement in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council after Theresa May announced Russian diplomats are to be thrown out of the UK following the attempted murder, the Russian permanent representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, insisted on “material proof” of Russia’s use of a nerve agent on British soil.
Russia faced universal condemnation from members of the council after a summit was called to discuss the incident in Salisbury.
Notably, US Ambassador Nikki Haley called for “immediate concrete measures” to hold Russia accountable as she said the country shared the UK’s assertion of Russian responsibility. A statement from the White House issued later said the US “stands in solidarity with its closest ally” over the decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats.
Britain’s deputy UN ambassador, Jonathan Allen, told the meeting the government is asking the international chemical weapons watchdog to independently verify its analysis that a military-grade nerve agent from the former Soviet Union was used to poison the pair.
But in an extraordinary response, Nebenzia cited the Arthur Conan Doyle series of stories, and highlighted the “hapless character” Inspector Lestrade, who is “not particularly smart” and comes up with “banal conclusions, only to be overturned by Sherlock Holmes”.
He said: “I am not trying to say that those who work in Scotland Yard are not professional. But I do think that we could all stand to benefit from having Sherlock Holmes with us today.”
Nebenzia added the inspector today is the “high level members of the UK government” who have made “unsupported accusations, which have far-reaching consequences”.
The US ambassador to the world body, Haley, said: “Let me make one thing clear from the very beginning, the United States stands in absolute solidarity with Great Britain.
“The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent. Dozens of civilians and first responders were also exposed.
“No two nations enjoy a stronger bond than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Ours is truly a special relationship. When our friends in Great Britain face a challenge, the United States will always be there for them. Always.”
Allen said that without any alternative explanation from Russian authorities about the nerve agent “we have no choice but to conclude this was a state-sponsored act against the prohibition and use of chemical weapons and in defiance of international law.”
He said the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been informed about the use of the nerve agent and the UN “are inviting them to independently verify our analysis.” He said: “We are making every effort to expedite this process.”
The British Prime Minister announced that 23 diplomats have a week to leave the country, making it the single biggest expulsion of diplomats for over 30 years.
The Prime Minister added the UK was suspending high-level contacts with Russia and that dignitaries, including members of the royal family, will not attend this summer’s World Cup.
London had given Moscow until midnight on Wednesday to explain whether it was behind the attack or had lost control of the nerve agent used.
Government sources indicated that plans were in place for further action if Russia responds in a “disproportionate” way to the expulsion of its diplomats.
May’s “calibrated, calm and firm” announcement was designed to impress on the international community the seriousness of the situation and Britain’s robust response to it, while leaving her the flexibility to take more steps if necessary.
“Although we’ve announced this response, further options remain on the table,” said one senior Government official. “Economic, diplomatic, legislative and security capabilities can all be brought to bear if needed.
“If we don’t feel that what we have done thus far is having the required effect in the short, medium or long term – a change of behaviour from the Kremlin – we will look at them again and revise them.”
The are also a range of options which the UK could pursue which cannot be made public, including investigations which might lead to legal action, the official said.
It is understood that the list of 23 undeclared intelligence officers was carefully drawn up in order to keep some channels of communication open.
Russia has been refusing to co-operate unless it was given access to samples of the Novichok poison used.
Ahead of May’s statement, all 29 countries in Nato – including the US – backed a statement demanding Russia provides a “full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme” and answers the UK’s questions.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry earlier said May’s statement is “an unprecedentedly crude provocation that undermines the foundations of a normal interstate dialogue between our countries.”
The statement added: “We consider it categorically unacceptable and unworthy that the British government, in its unseemly political aims, further seriously aggravated relations, announcing a whole set of hostile measures, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country.”