LONDON — The spy drama gripping Britain was expected to reach a climax Wednesday after Russia ignored a midnight deadline to explain how its nerve agent was used in the attempted assassination of a former double agent on U.K. soil.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to announce in Parliament how she plans to retaliate against Moscow for its alleged role in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last week.
May said earlier that it was “highly likely” the regime of President Vladimir Putin was behind the attack and gave him until midnight Tuesday to provide an explanation.
Russia denied any involvement and said it was not responding to May’s ultimatum until it received samples of the military-grade nerve agent investigators say was used in the attack.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Britain was flagrantly trying to mislead the international community but that Russia would not allow this to happen.
He told reporters that Britain’s allegations are not robust and not serious, adding that the U.K.’s approach is “we know everything, you have to believe us.”
With the deadline ignored, May was chairing a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council on Wednesday morning. Here, the prime minister, her top advisers and senior Cabinet ministers were deciding how to react to what May had earlier called an “unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”
The results of this meeting are set to be made public Wednesday afternoon, when May will address lawmakers after her weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session in Parliament.
She has several options.
Many analysts expect her to expel some but not all Russian officials and diplomatic staff operating in the U.K.
This is a similar tactic used after the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, an attack reminiscent of the one in Salisbury that was “probably” ordered by Putin himself, according to a British judge.
However, this action alone was seen by many commentators as a lackluster response to Moscow’s aggression.
The government could get tougher this time by seizing or freezing the assets of super-rich Russian oligarchs, some of whom are linked to Putin and whose money has flooded the London property market in recent years.
Some experts have even suggested May could invoke NATO’s collective-defense clause, meaning allies such as the U.S. would be asked to come to her aid.
And even more drastic response — in the eyes of many Britons at least — is the call by some lawmakers for the English soccer team to boycott the World Cup being hosted in Russia this summer.