Sunday 20 January 2019

'UK to face chemical warfare threats'

Soldiers wearing protective clothing prepare to lift a recovery vehicle as the investigation into the suspected nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal continues Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA
Soldiers wearing protective clothing prepare to lift a recovery vehicle as the investigation into the suspected nerve agent attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal continues Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA

Ben Farmer

Britain is at a profound moment in its history and cannot sit back and let events overtake it, the UK's defence secretary will warn today, as he unveils measures to tackle chemical and biological warfare.

Gavin Williamson will use his first major speech to outline how Britain must modernise its defences to tackle growing threats as he warns the Salisbury spy poisoning incident should remove any doubt over the danger Russia poses to the UK.

Last night, amid growing support for Britain from its neighbours, the US hardened its stance on Russia, saying the poisoning was a "defining moment" and backed Britain in its belief that Russia was responsible.

Thousands of British soldiers are now to be vaccinated against anthrax, while a new chemical weapon defence centre will protect Britain from further attacks, Mr Williamson is to announce.

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson
British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson

His speech comes after Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday expelled 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow failed to explain how Col Sergei Skripal and his daughter came to be attacked with a rare, military-grade Russian nerve agent.

Mrs May said Russia's failure to explain the use of the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury left "no alternative conclusion" than that Russia was culpable.

She said Russia had "treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance". Their response to her ultimatum had "demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events", she added.

Announcing sanctions, Mrs May said Britain would suspend high-level contacts, and ministers and the royal family would not attend the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Russian state assets will be frozen wherever there is evidence they could be used "to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents".

Russian government figures said relations with Britain were at their worst since the Cold War and the foreign office warned England football fans heading to the World Cup not to incite violence.

As Mrs May garnered international support, Angela Merkel said Germany took the British findings "very seriously" and Europe would present "a common European view".

And Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said last night: "The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom, using a military-grade nerve agent."

She added: "No two nations enjoy a stronger bond than 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."

But at the same time, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn caused uproar and was accused of being an "apologist for Russia" when he suggested in the House of Commons that it was possible Moscow may not have been responsible for the attack.

Today, Mr Williamson will use his speech at a Rolls-Royce plant near Bristol to announce nearly £50m (€55m) for a new chemical weapons defence centre at the Ministry of Defence's secret Porton Down laboratory, which identified the Novichok nerve agent used against Col Skripal.

The defence secretary, who was criticised for claiming earlier this year that Russia could kill thousands with a cyber attack, is expected to say: "If we doubted the threat Russia poses to our citizens, we only have to look at the shocking example of their reckless attack in Salisbury."

He will also argue that Britain must modernise its defences at a time when he is expected to ask the treasury to plug growing funding gaps in the military budget.

"We have arrived at a profound moment in our history, a crossroads where the choice before us as a nation is simple - to sit back and let events overtake us or step forward," he will say. "As Brexit beckons, the eyes of the world are on us. Rest assured our adversaries will be watching even more closely than our allies. This is our moment to retain our competitive advantage."

British and Russian relations are now more dangerous than during the Cold War, one of Vladimir Putin's foreign policy advisers has said.

Evgenny Primakov Jr called allegations that Russia was involved in the Salibury attack "nonsense". He said last night: "Frankly, in Moscow we are in shock. The whole thing looks insane. No one here believes this was a Russian attack." (© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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