In its most pointed criticism of Russia to date, on Wednesday the White House said in a statement that it agreed with the British government’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom.
“The United States shares the United Kingdom’s assessment that Russia is responsible for the reckless nerve agent attack on a British citizen and his daughter, and we support the United Kingdom’s decision to expel Russian diplomats as a just response,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in the statement.
“This latest action by Russia fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes. The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”
Until Tuesday night, the White House had avoided pointing the finger at Russia for the attack, in which a former Russian spy was poisoned with a nerve agent near his home in southern England, and which the UK concluded was orchestrated by the Kremlin, despite offering no proof and refusing to comply with Russian demands that the alleged toxin be produced.
This explicit condemnation of Moscow by the White House, however, was apparently not enough for the NYT, which said that despite Sanders’ statement, “for whatever reason, Mr. Trump avoided saying so personally in public, much as he has generally avoided condemning Russia for its election meddling.”
Instead, the NYT claims that Trump “has allowed top advisers to denounce Moscow for its interference in American democracy, but when it comes to his own Twitter posts or comments, he has largely stuck to equivocal language, seemingly reluctant to accept the consensus conclusion of his intelligence agencies and intent on voicing no outrage or criticism of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, for whom he has expressed admiration.”
Instead, through early evening, Mr. Trump used his Twitter feed to focus on issues like trade, infrastructure, school safety and his complaints that Senate Democrats are obstructing confirmation of his nominees. His only public comments during the day came at a Boeing plant where he talked about tax cuts.
This apparent unwillingness by Trump to join the chorus prompted US politicians from both parties to urge the president “to speak out personally and possibly take action to back up Mrs. May.”
“Where Prime Minister May has taken bold and decisive initial action to combat Russian aggression, our own president has waffled and demurred,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “Prime Minister May’s decision to expel the Russian diplomats is the level of response that many Americans have been craving from our own administration.”
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, said the United States should consult with NATO allies about “a collective response,” including the possibility of expelling Russian diplomats from Washington and other alliance capitals or freezing more Russian assets. “We ought to make it inescapably clear to Russia that its shadow war will be met with a coordinated response,” he said.
The legacy neocons were most vocal: Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official who oversaw Russia policy under President Barack Obama, said Trump should offer a range of assistance to Britain to help investigate the episode, prevent further such attacks on British sovereignty and impose punishment. She added that the United States could cite the suspicious death of Mikhail Y. Lesin, a former Russian minister, in a Washington hotel in 2015, in taking joint action. Investigators concluded that he died from a drunken fall but many remain skeptical.
“Judgment day for Donald Trump,” R. Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO and an under secretary of state under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter. “Will he support Britain unequivocally on the nerve agent attack? Back #NATO sanctions? Finally criticize Putin? Act like a leader of the West?”
After all, what better way to prove to Mueller that you are not a Putin pawn than to lob a couple of nukes over the North Pole and into the Russian capital, in the process sending the stocks of US defense contractors through the roof?
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Joking – we hope – aside the White House’s official statement on the attack came just hours after United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Russia was responsible for using a nerve agent to poison the ex-spy and his daughter. “The United States believes that Russia is responsible for two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent,” Haley said.
The fearmongering then quickly escalated, with Haley next telling the UN Security Council that aying next that “if we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used. They could be used here in New York, or in cities of any country that sits on this Council. This is a defining moment.“
The specter of more Russian attacks – when there still isn’t actual proof of the first one – was raised during an emergency council meeting, held at the request of British officials who have accused Russia of using “a military-grade nerve agent” to target a former military intelligence officer who committed treason. Russian diplomats have denied responsibility for the incident, but British investigators say they have identified the poison as a chemical weapon produced by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
They have, however, refused to present it to Russia for examination, despite repeated requests. So without the requirement of even a minimal burden of proof, the propaganda flowed:
“Time and time again, member-states say they oppose the use of chemical weapons under any circumstance,” Haley said. “Now one member stands accused of using chemical weapons on the sovereign soil of another member. The credibility of this council will not survive if we fail to hold Russia accountable.”
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Russia, naturally, has repeatedly denied responsibility for the March 4 incident, which left former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia hospitalized, and warned British Prime Minister Theresa May against considering a cyber-attack or other aggressive retaliation. “A hysterical atmosphere is being created by London,” Russian Ambassador Visaly Nebenzia told the Security Council. “We would like to warn that this will not remain without reaction on our part.”
Russia has also faulted the United Kingdom for taking action before submitting to a formal investigation brokered by Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “Those experts will not be convinced by their argument,” he predicted. The British representative at the meeting countered that the United Kingdom has invited the OPCW to conduct an independent test, while faulting Russia for ignoring May’s demand for an explanation earlier this week.
“We have received no meaningful response,” deputy ambassador Jonathan Allen said during the meeting. “This council should not fall for their attempt to muddy the waters.”
Doubling down, Haley compared the Skripal attack to North Korea’s use of a nerve agent to assassinate the half-brother of dictator Kim Jong-un — a murder that resulted in the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. She linked the Salisbury incident to the increasingly-regular use of chemical weapons, especially in Syria, and urged Russia to “come clean” about the assassination attempt.
“The Russians complained recently that we criticize them too much,” she said. “If the Russian government stopped using chemical weapons to assassinate its enemies; and if the Russian government stopped helping its Syrian ally to use chemical weapons to kill Syrian children; and if Russia cooperated with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons by turning over all information related to this nerve agent, we would stop talking about them. We take no pleasure in having to constantly criticize Russia, but we need Russia to stop giving us so many reasons to do so.”
Some tried logic: Nebenzia argued Russia had no reason to try to kill Skripal. He described the former double agent as “a perfect victim” for a plot to frame Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government in the run-up to the March 18 presidential elections.
“[T]he most probable source origin for this chemical are the countries which have since the end of the 90s been carrying out intensive research on these kinds of weapons, including the UK,” Nebenzia told the Security Council. “If the UK is so firmly convinced this is a [Soviet-era] Novichok gas, then that means that they have the samples of this and they have the formula for this and they are capable of manufacturing it.”
By then however, with both sides entrenched in factless allegations, any possibility for a rational discussion was long gone.
Instead, we can now look forward to the moment when Colin Powell will again make a grand appearance in the UN, and definitively prove to the world that Russia is guilty by holding a vial of that infamous Russia anthrax, as justification for heating up a few notches the new cold war between Russia and the West.