Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday slammed Russia over an alleged nerve agent attack in Britain — going further than the White House in directly calling out the Kremlin as “an irresponsible force of instability in the world.”
Tillerson said the United States will stand “in solidarity” with the United Kingdom and would coordinate its response to the attack. At least two people, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, have been left extremely sick due to the alleged nerve agent.
Tillerson’s decision to take a harsher tone than the White House is the latest example of the Trump administration’s struggle to coordinate its overall foreign policy message. That differences have been especially obvious when it comes to Russia, whose government President Donald Trump has been loathe to criticize and which is suspected of interfering in the 2016 presidential election on his behalf.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday it was “highly likely” that the Kremlin was responsible for the nerve agent attack and that the substance was a type known to be developed by Russia. She suggested that the Russian government carried out the attack or it had allowed the dangerous material to fall into the hands of others. She demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin explain how the military-grade substance ended up on U.K. soil.
The Russian government has denied the allegations.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered the Trump administration’s “fullest condemnation” on Monday, but she did not go as far as May in assigning blame to Russia.
In remarks to reporters while traveling in Africa, Tillerson said the attack was a “really egregious act.” At that point, the secretary said it was not clear whether the Russian government itself was behind the attack or whether it was a non-state actor. It was “almost beyond comprehension” that a state actor would take such a step given that it could potentially harm many people, Tillerson said.
But in a statement issued later in the day, Tillerson said the United States has “full confidence” in the British assessment that Russia was “likely responsible.”
“There is never a justification for this type of attack — the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation — and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior,” Tillerson said in the statement. “From Ukraine to Syria — and now the U.K. — Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”
He added: “We agree that those responsible — both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it — must face appropriately serious consequences. We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”
Trump has struck a notably softer tone than Tillerson when it comes to Russia. He has dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign to help him win, and he has repeatedly talked about the need to find common ground with Putin. His administration also has held back on imposing sanctions passed into law by Congress.
While Tillerson has tried to patch up fraying ties with Russia, he nonetheless has been more vocal than the president in criticizing some of Russia’s actions overseas, including its aggression in Ukraine and its role in the Syrian conflict.
In comments while in Africa, Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO who knows Putin well, said he’d become “extremely concerned about Russia” and acknowledged that the past year’s worth of attempts to improve the relationship with Moscow “didn’t get very far.“
“Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive,” Tillerson said. “And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.“
Skripal had reportedly acted as an informant for British intelligence. The attack on him and his daughter is believed to have occurred March 4 and possibly exposed any number of other people to danger in the city of Salisbury.
May faces pressure to take substantive action against Russia. When she was the home secretary, she resisted an open inquiry into the fatal poisoning in 2006 of another ex-Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko.
Politico · by Nahal Toosi · March 12, 2018