British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said that the country’s law enforcement agencies were investigating rich Russian individuals with assets in Britain, and suggested that those who owe their wealth to their ties with President Vladimir Putin could be brought to justice.
He made the comments on March 15, the day after Britain announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats and other measures in retaliation for the poisoning of a former spy with a military-grade nerve agent.
Johnson defended the measures as the British government is under pressure from lawmakers and media to show it was getting tough on Russia, which strongly denies involvement in the incident.
The Kremlin said on March 15 that London’s measures in reaction to the poisoning were "irresponsible," and the Interfax news agency quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that a Russian "response will come very soon, I assure you."
According to state-run RIA, Lavrov was asked whether Russia would expel British diplomats and said it would do so "soon."
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain critically ill after being found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.
Britain says the chemical used in the attempted murder was identified as part of a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military known as Novichok
Allies have expressed support for Britain’s assessment that Russia was behind the attack, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying that he would announce unspecified “measures” in the coming days.
And NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the "unacceptable" attack was part of "a reckless pattern of Russian behavior over many years."
In an interview with BBC television, Johnson said, "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."
The National Crime Agency and its economic crimes unit are investigating a wide range of individuals, he later told BBC radio. He declined to provide further details.
The foreign secretary also said that the attack was Russia's "way of saying to people this is what happens to people who stand up to our regime."
"Now is the moment for Putin to jam the lid down and send a message to people: 'You do this, you're going to die,’" he added.
'Strong Bewilderment' In Moscow
Johnson said a sample of the nerve agent would be sent to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body set up to stop chemical warfare, for analysis.
Meanwhile, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow considers Britain's stance to be "irresponsible" and is preparing to retaliate over London's measures against it.
Peskov promised retaliation to the British move, which Moscow views with "strong bewilderment." Peskov also said London had provided no proof for its accusations against Russia.
He also said that the matter won't disrupt Russia's presidential election on March 18.
The Russian campaign remains lackluster just three days before the vote. Putin is overwhelmingly expected to win another term after 18 years in power, riding in part on his argument that he must stand up to Western aggressors.
Opposition candidate and former TV star Ksenia Sobchak is holding a big rally on March 15, after breaking down in tears at the final televised debate the previous night. She was the only candidate to criticize Putin.
Lavrov reportedly referred to the British allegations against Russia as "boorish," and said they "reflect the hopeless situation the British government has found itself" in over the country's exit from the European Union.
Earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry called Britain's accusations "completely insane."
British Prime Minister Theresa May on March 15 announced the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats in 30 years, the suspension of planned high-level contacts with Russia, and a boycott by government officials and royal family members of the soccer World Cup that Russia is hosting in June and July.
"There is no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder" of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, "and for threatening the lives of other British citizens” in the southern English city of Salisbury, May said.
Condemning the "unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said Britain "will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property" of its citizens or residents.
Speaking to journalists about the incident, Macron said on March 15 that "everything leads us to believe that responsibility is in fact attributable to Russia."
He said he would "announce in the coming days the measures that we intend to take."
In Brussels, Stoltenberg said the attack in Salisbury was "unacceptable. It has no place in a civilized world."
He added that Britain could count on NATO's solidarity, but said there has been no request by London to activate the alliance's mutual defense clause.
"The attack in Salisbury happened against a backdrop of a pattern we have seen over many years," the NATO chief also said.
He cited Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its military presence in Georgia and Moldova "against these countries' will," "meddling" in the Western Balkans, "attempts to subvert democratic elections and institutions," and the "military buildup from the North of Europe to the Middle East."
Late on March 14, the White House said the United States "shares the United Kingdom's assessment that Russia is responsible for the attack" on the Skripals.
A statement said it was "working together" with allies "to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again," but proposed no immediate response.
Skripal, a retired Russian military intelligence colonel, was convicted by a Moscow military court in 2006 of high treason for passing secrets to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents detained in the United States. He later became a British citizen, British authorities said.