Russian involvement in ex-spy Sergei Skripal's poisoning would not go 'unpunished', Boris Johnson warns

Russian involvement in ex-spy Sergei Skripal's poisoning would not go 'unpunished', Boris Johnson warns

Russian involvement in ex-spy Sergei Skripal's poisoning would not go 'unpunished', Boris Johnson warns

Updated 7 March 2018, 16:35 AEDT

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson threatens Russia with sanctions if Moscow is found to be behind the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter at a shopping centre in the UK, adding it would also prompt England to review its participation in June's World Cup hosted Russia.

Britain has warned it will respond "robustly" if the Kremlin is shown to be behind the mysterious illness that struck down a former Russian double agent convicted of betraying dozens of spies to British intelligence.

Key points:

  • The Kremlin says it has no information on what happened to Sergei Skripal
  • The former Russian spy had been keeping a low profile since finding refuge in Britain in 2010
  • The Kremlin says Britain has not asked for help with the investigation

Sergei Skripal, convicted of treason in Moscow, was once a colonel in Russia's GRU military intelligence service.

He was given refuge in Britain after he was exchanged in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the West as part of a Cold War-style spy swap.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Parliament the 66-year-old former spy and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping centre on Sunday in the English city of Salisbury.

"I say to governments around the world that no attempt to take innocent life on UK soil will go either unsanctioned or unpunished," Mr Johnson said, adding that Russia was a malign and disruptive force in the world.

"While it would be wrong to pre-judge the investigation, I can reassure the House that should evidence emerge that implies state responsibility, then Her Majesty's Government will respond appropriately and robustly."

Mr Johnson even threatened that England would review its participation at the FIFA World Cup in Russia, starting in June.

"Thinking ahead to the World Cup… this summer, I think it would be very difficult to imagine that UK representation at that event could go ahead in the normal way," he said.

Both were critically ill in intensive care on Tuesday while a member of the emergency services was also being treated in hospital.

The Kremlin has said it was ready to cooperate if Britain asked for help investigating the "tragic situation", but rejected the allegations it may be involved as "groundless".

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Britain should investigate the incident before blaming Russia, but spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a press conference that no British authorities had been in touch.

"Moscow is always open for cooperation," he said.

When asked to respond to British media speculation that Russia had poisoned Mr Skripal, Mr Peskov said: "It didn't take them long."

Mr Peskov said the Kremlin did not have information about what had happened.

Mr Skripal was arrested in 2004 by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) on suspicion of betraying dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence.

He was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006 after a secret trial.

Mr Skripal, who was at the time shown wearing a track suit in a cage in court during the sentencing, had admitted betraying agents to MI6 in return for money, some of it paid into a Spanish bank account, Russian media said at the time.

But he was pardoned in 2010 by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as part of a swap to bring 10 Russian agents held in the United States back to Moscow.

British authorities on guard

While the British authorities said there was no known risk to the public, police sealed off the area where the former spy was found and a pizza restaurant called Zizzi in the centre of Salisbury. Some investigators wore yellow chemical suits.

"We're speaking to witnesses, we're taking forensic samples at the scene, we're doing toxicology work and that will help us to get to an answer," Mark Rowley, Britain's top counter-terrorism officer, said.

"We have to remember: Russian exiles aren't immortal, they do all die and there can be a tendency to conspiracy theories. But likewise we have to be alive to the fact of state threats," he told BBC radio before referring to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

A British inquiry said President Vladimir Putin probably approved the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement.

Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Mr Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years to the day before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London's Millennium Hotel.

It took some time for British doctors to discern the cause of Litvinenko's illness.

Skripal considered a traitor in Moscow

The spy swap which brought Mr Skripal to the UK, one of the biggest since the Cold War ended in 1991, took place on the tarmac of Vienna's airport where a Russian and a US jet parked side by side before the agents were exchanged.

One of the Russian spies exchanged for Mr Skripal was Anna Chapman.

She was one of 10 who tried to blend in to American society in an apparent bid to get close to power brokers and learn secrets. They were arrested by the FBI in 2010.

The returning Russian spies were greeted as heroes in Moscow. Mr Putin, himself a former KGB officer who served in what was then East Germany, sang patriotic songs with them.

Mr Skripal, though, was cast as a traitor by Moscow. He is thought to have done serious damage to Russian spy networks in Britain and Europe.

The GRU spy service, created in 1918 under revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, is controlled by the military general staff and reports directly to the president. It has spies spread across the world.

Since finding refuge in Britain, Mr Skripal lived quietly in Salisbury and kept out of the spotlight until he was found unconscious on Sunday.

"On the bench there was a couple, an older guy and a younger girl. She was sort of leant-in on him. It looked like she'd passed out maybe. He was doing some strange hand movements, looking up to the sky," witness Freya Church told the BBC.

"They looked so out of it that I thought even if I did step in I wasn't sure how I could help, so I just left them. But it looked like they'd been taking something quite strong."

Another Russian, Alexander Perepilichny, who had been helping a Swiss investigation into a Russian money-laundering scheme, was found dead in 2012 in Britain.

Police ruled out foul play despite suspicions he might have been murdered with a rare poison. An inquest has yet to give a definitive conclusion as to how he died.