World / Politics

May faces calls to retaliate against Russia after spy attack


U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May faces calls to crack down on Russian influence in Britain amid reports that investigators have linked Vladimir Putin’s regime to last week’s poisoning of a former spy in a city southwest of London.

The Times and Telegraph newspapers reported that May could blame Russia publicly as early as Monday for the attempted nerve-gas murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. They remained in a hospital on Sunday, while May is drawing up plans to cancel the visas of Russians linked to Putin and impose sanctions, the papers said.

May and her senior security officials have been careful to avoid pointing the finger at Russia, saying they’re waiting for the inquiry to report back first. The Times reported that investigators have found evidence to link the nerve agent used in the attack to Moscow.

“I’d be surprised if she did not point the finger at the Kremlin,” Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, said on Monday in a BBC radio interview. He called for “specific” sanctions on Russian oligarchs to deny them access to the U.K., adding “it is incumbent upon us to react and I hope to lead others to do so, too.”

On Sunday, May was urged to return Russian contributions made to her Conservative Party and introduce a U.K. version of the so-called Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials involved in corruption.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the backbench Conservative lawmaker and leading advocate for Brexit, said Russia is “a real threat” to the U.K. and called for “as tough measure as we can possibly implement” if it turns out Russia was behind the attack in Salisbury last week.

“It is simply outside the international order for a country to go around murdering people in another country’s territory, as it was for them to have invaded the Crimea, and we cannot deal with a rogue state as if it is a normal state,” he said on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday.”

Although May pledged to distance the Tories from Russian donors, Russian oligarchs and associates registered donations of more than £820,000 ($1.1 million) to the party since May became prime minister, the Sunday Times reported.

May should hand back the cash, said Marina Litvinenko, whose husband Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident Russian ex-spy, was murdered in London in 2006 after drinking tea spiked with radioactive polonium. Interviewed on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show,” she also accused the government of failing to take more robust measures against Russia after her husband’s death.

“We need to be very careful that we prevent the oligarchs, those who have got wealthy by exploiting Russia’s wealth, by stealing off the Russian people for the best part of 20 years, realize that they can’t spend their wealth in London, that they can’t enjoy the luxuries of Harrods and whatever else and that we’re absolutely firm in making sure that they feel the pain of being denied entry into the West,” said Tugendhat.

May’s cabinet ministers have repeatedly said they’ll wait until police and security services complete the investigation before taking action, and that any measures will be “appropriate” if it turns out that Russia — or any other state — was behind the attempted murder.

Tony Brenton, the U.K. ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, said there’s “a strong sense of deja vu” around the Litvinenko case. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “is absolutely right that Russia is number one on a list of suspects that doesn’t include a number two,” he told “Pienaar’s Politics” on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday.

Officials in Salisbury, the city southwest of London where Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a park bench a week ago, said Sunday there was limited nerve agent contamination in the pub and restaurant the two had visited, and the health risks to the public remains low.

As a precautionary measure, customers and staff who visited the venues — believed to number fewer than 500 people — were told to clean their clothes and possessions such as phones and jewelry thoroughly.

Both Labour and Conservative law makers stepped up calls for the government to introduce amendments to the sanctions bill that’s currently making its way through the House of Commons, which would mirror the Magnitsky Act in the U.S., according to the Sunday Telegraph.

The lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was a whistle-blower on corruption who died in a Russian prison in 2009. His case has become a cause celebre, with a law passed by U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012 to punish the officials blamed for his death. Canada has also adopted a version of the measure.

Speaking on the BBC on Sunday, Chancellor Philip Hammond said Magnitsky amendments in the U.K. weren’t “strictly necessary,” as the government already has powers to ban from the country people deemed to be a threat to national security or public good. He also defended the government’s response to the Litvinenko death.

John McDonnell, the opposition Labour Party’s Treasury spokesman, said he would stop appearing on the state-sponsored television channel Russia Today, and he urged the government to introduce a Magnitsky Act.

“Whichever state it is, we’ve got to use every diplomatic method we can, linked up with our European and other global allies to ensure that we isolate that particular administration if it is a state involved in this,” McDonnell said on the BBC’s Marr show.