British foreign minister Boris Johnson suggested on Thursday that corrupt Russians who owe their wealth to their ties with President Vladimir Putin could be targeted by British police in retaliation for a nerve attack on a Russian ex-spy.
Britain said on Wednesday it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats over the Novichok nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who collapsed in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in a critical condition.
Moscow denies any involvement and is expected to retaliate. The foreign ministry there said on Thursday morning it was still working on its response to the British measures, labelling London’s accusations against the Russian state “insane”.
At home, the British government has been under pressure from lawmakers and media to show it was getting tough on Russia, with some experts saying that despite the rhetoric the response did not go far enough to bother Putin.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson defended the measures announced on Wednesday and suggested that there could be further consequences for rich Russians with assets in Britain.
“What people want to see is some of the very rich people who are directly associated with Vladimir Putin ... whose wealth can be attributed to their relationship with Vladimir Putin, it may be that the law agencies, that the police will be able to put unexplained wealth orders on them, to bring them to justice for their acts of gross corruption,” Johnson told BBC television in an interview on Britain’s response to the Skripal case.
Johnson is heartened by strong expressions of support from the United States
In a later interview with BBC radio, he said Britain’s National Crime Agency and Economic Crimes Unit were investigating a wide range of individuals but declined to give names or details citing legal reasons.
Johnson said he had been heartened by strong expressions of support from the United States and other allies — although it remains unclear whether there will be a coordinated international response to the Novichok attack.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Wednesday that her country believed Russia was responsible for the attack, adding it was a crime worthy of UN Security Council action.
That seems unlikely given that Russia, like Britain and the United States, is a permanent member of the Security Council.
Russia has repeatedly said Britain was refusing to provide a sample of the nerve agent used in Salisbury, and even close British ally France has said it wanted to see proof of Russian involvement before taking action.
Johnson said Prime Minister Theresa May would talk to French President Emmanuel Macron again on Thursday about the attack.
He also said Britain would send a sample of the nerve agent to the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons for them to independently assess it.