EU recalls ambassador from Moscow over spy attack

The European Union is recalling its ambassador from Moscow for consultations over the nerve gas attack against a former spy in Britain earlier this month, reinforcing a united stand with Prime Minister Theresa May against Russia.

Police officer leaves hospital as London, Moscow spar over attack on former spy

British Prime Minister Theresa May walks by flags as she leaves an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 23. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press)

The European Union is recalling its ambassador from Moscow for consultations over the nerve gas attack against a former spy in Britain earlier this month, reinforcing a united stand with Prime Minister Theresa May against Russia.

After the EU firmly sided with May in the escalating conflict reminiscent of the Cold War and said it was "highly likely Russia is responsible" for the attack on Sergei Skripal, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU envoy "is being recalled for consultations to Brussels."

May won the backing of 27 other EU leaders at a summit Thursday and the bloc called the attack a "grave challenge to our shared security."

The EU states said they would "co-ordinate on the consequences to be drawn in the light of the answers provided by the Russian authorities."

May was delighted with the support early Friday. "This is about us standing together to uphold our values against the Russian threat," she said.

Rutte said no sanctions were actually discussed at the summit even though rumours swirled of more drastic diplomatic measures. 

Rutte said over the coming days or weeks, "we and our partners must see what the logical next steps are."

He insisted that any measure "must have an added value to this extremely strong political declaration."

Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte greets Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels on March 22. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

The unanimity was a victory for May. She had been striving at a summit in Brussels to persuade her EU colleagues to unite in condemning Moscow over the attack on Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter, Yulia.

During a summit dinner, May laid out the reasons Britain is convinced Moscow was behind the attack, including the type of poison used — a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok — and intelligence that Russia has produced it within the last decade.

Britain argues the attack is part of a pattern of behaviour by an increasingly assertive Russia whose muscle-flexing, cyber-meddling and law-breaking on foreign soil pose a threat to the international rule of law.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain unconscious in critical but stable condition after the March 4 nerve agent attack in the English city of Salisbury, which has sparked an east-west diplomatic crisis reminiscent of the Cold War.

Russia has fiercely denied allegations it poisoned the Skripals and slammed Britain's investigation into the nerve-agent attack, and some European leaders urged caution while the investigation continues.

Health officials said Thursday that Det.-Sgt. Nick Bailey, a police officer who became seriously ill after responding to the nerve agent attack, has been released from a Salisbury hospital. 

The poisoning of two Russians in the U.K. is prompting police to look back on more than a dozen suspicious deaths first linked to Russia by a Buzzfeed investigation. Watch The Investigators Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 4:16

May said "the incident in Salisbury was part of a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours, from the western Balkans to the Middle East."

Britain and Russia have expelled 23 of each other's diplomats in a feud that shows no signs of cooling.

Russia's ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, said Thursday that his country "can't take British words for granted." He accused the U.K. of having a "bad record of violating international law and misleading the international community."

"History shows that British statements must be verified," he told reporters in London, demanding "full transparency of the investigation and full co-operation with Russia" and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Russia's ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, held a news conference in the Russian Embassy in London on Thursday. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

Britain says it is complying with the international chemical-weapons watchdog. Experts from the OPCW have come to Britain to take samples of the nerve agent and examine blood from the unconscious Skripals.

EU foreign ministers had already expressed their "unqualified solidarity" with Britain. But European politicians and leaders vary in how far they are willing to go in blaming Putin's Kremlin.

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave May strong backing after meeting her on the sidelines of the EU summit. The British prime minister's office said they agreed "there is no plausible explanation other than that the Russian state was responsible."

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, whose former Soviet state shares a border with Russia's Kaliningrad enclave, also offered her full backing to Britain and said she was weighing whether to expel Russian diplomats from her country over the Salisbury attack.

Pedestrians walk past the scene on March 19 where ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal sat on a bench with his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE)

German politician Manfred Weber, leader of the biggest group in the European Parliament, said Putin "wants to destabilize the European idea" and Europe must be strong in its response.

But Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was more cautious. He said "we have to express our solidarity to the U.K., to the British people, but at the same time we need to investigate."

Putin's office said Thursday that Tsipras had called Putin to congratulate him on his re-election and discuss issues, including the Salisbury poisoning. 

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he wanted to hear what May had to say before making up his mind.

"First I listen, and then I take a decision," he said.

The Salisbury attack has sent relations between London and Moscow to Cold War-style lows.

On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was "emetic" — vomit-inducing — that Putin is rejoicing over hosting the World Cup soccer tournament this summer. Russia responded that Johnson was "poisoned with venom of malice and hate."

The U.K. and Russia are starting to square off as their diplomatic relations deteriorate. At the centre of their dispute, the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury using a Soviet-made nerve agent. In response to a lack of co-operation from Russia, British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced retaliatory measures — measures Moscow is calling a serious provocation and absolutely unacceptable 7:04

Johnson also said Russia's hosting of the tournament could be compared to the 1936 Olympics, which was used as a propaganda exercise by Nazi Germany. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called that comparison an "utterly disgusting statement that is unworthy of a foreign minister of any country."

Russia has repeatedly said the nerve agent used against the Skripals could have come from another country or a non-state group.

The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported Thursday that Leonid Rink, an expert involved in developing Novichok — the type of nerve agent used on the Skripals — had sold a few ampules of it decades ago to crime groups, including to Chechen mobsters.

This undated handout photo provided by Wiltshire Police shows Det.-Sgt. Nick Bailey. Bailey visited Skripal's house as well as the scene of the crime, according to earlier reports. Bailey is now out of hospital, authorities said Thursday. (Wiltshire Police via AP)

Bailey, the U.K. police officer, said he had been overwhelmed by the support he's received.

"People ask me how I am feeling – but there are really no words to explain how I feel right now," Bailey said in statement issued by his local force. "Surreal is the word that keeps cropping up – and it really has been completely surreal."

"I recognize that 'normal' life for me will probably never be the same," Bailey said.

Appealing for privacy for his family, Bailey said "I want people to focus on the investigation — not the police officer who was unfortunate enough to be caught up in it."

With files from CBC News and Reuters