Britain threatened on Tuesday to pull out of the soccer World Cup in Russia if Moscow was shown to be behind the mysterious illness that struck down a Russian former double agent convicted of betraying dozens of spies to British intelligence.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson named Sergei Skripal, once a colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his daughter, Yulia, as the two people who were found unconscious on Sunday on a bench outside a shopping center in southern England.
Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were exposed to what police said was an unknown substance in the English city of Salisbury. Both are still critically ill in intensive care.
“We don’t know exactly what has taken place in Salisbury, but if it’s as bad as it looks, it is another crime in the litany of crimes that we can lay at Russia’s door,” Johnson told the British parliament.
“It is clear that Russia, I’m afraid, is now in many respects a malign and disruptive force, and the UK is in the lead across the world in trying to counteract that activity.”
If Moscow was shown to be behind Skripal’s illness, Johnson said, it would be difficult to see how Britain could attend the World Cup in Russia in June and July.
England is the only British national team to have qualified for the tournament, which is held every four years.
A previous British inquiry said President Vladimir Putin probably approved the 2006 murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in Litvinenko’s killing.
Litvinenko, 43, an outspoken critic of Putin who fled Russia for Britain six years before he was poisoned, died after drinking green tea laced with the rare and very potent radioactive isotope at London’s Millennium Hotel.
It took some time for British doctors to discern the cause of Litvinenko’s illness.
His murder sent Britain’s relations with Russia to what was then a post-Cold War low. Relations suffered further from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebels trying to topple him.
RUSSIAN DOUBLE AGENT
While the British authorities said there was no known risk to the public from the unidentified substance, they sealed off the area where Skripal was found, a pizza restaurant called Zizzi and the Bishop’s Mill pub in the center of Salisbury.
Some investigators at one point wore yellow chemical suits, though most police at the scene did not.
Skripal, who passed the identity of dozens of spies to the MI6 foreign intelligence agency, was given refuge in Britain after he was exchanged in 2010 for Russian spies caught in the West as part of a Cold War-style spy swap at Vienna airport.
The Kremlin said it was ready to cooperate if Britain asked it for help investigating the incident with Skripal.