ABOARD A U.S. GOVERNMENT AIRCRAFT — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in the U.K. is “a really egregious act” that appears to have “clearly” come from Russia.
Nevertheless, Tillerson said that it was not yet known “whether it came from Russia with the Russian government’s knowledge.”
The comments echoed those made Monday by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who said that it is “highly likely” Russia is responsible for the poisoning, either directly or because it lost control of the nerve agent. May gave Russia a midnight deadline to explain how Skripal, who passed secrets to Russian intelligence, and his daughter Yulia were poisoned.
Tillerson also expressed bewilderment that another country would deliberately target people in public, using a dangerous substance in a foreign country.
“It’s almost beyond comprehension that a state, an organized state, would do something like that,” he said while traveling aboard a U.S. airplane during a trip to Africa.
“A non-state actor, I could understand. A state actor — I cannot understand why anyone would take such an action,” he said.
Asked if the poisoning will trigger a mutual defense response with the close NATO ally, Tillerson said that “it certainly will trigger a response. I’ll leave it at that.”
Earlier, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. stood by Britain, calling it America’s “closest ally,” but she stopped short of blaming Russia for the attack.
The European Union also said it would stand by Britain, which is due to leave the bloc in just over a year’s time. May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, who Downing Street said condemned the attack and offered his solidarity with Britain.
President Donald Trump has yet to respond to May’s comments.
Tillerson, who spoke Monday by phone with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said he’s become “extremely concerned” about Russia, noting that he spent most of the first year of the Trump administration trying to solve problems and narrow differences with the Kremlin. He said after a year of trying, “we didn’t get very far.”
“Instead, what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive,” Tillerson added.
May said on Monday in the House of Commons that the nerve agent used against ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok. It was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
The two remain in critical condition more than a week after they were found unconscious in Salisbury on March 4. A British police officer who was one of the first to attend to the stricken spy was also affected by the nerve agent. He remains in serious condition, officials said.
Skripal, 66, was a Russian military intelligence officer before flipping to the British side in the 1990s, going to jail in Russia in 2006 and being freed in an exchange of spies in 2010. Moscow has dismissed the suggestion it was involved in his March 4 poisoning as “a circus show.”
The case also has similarities to the killing of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive tea in London in 2006. A British inquiry concluded that his death was the work of the Russian state and had probably been authorized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On Tuesday, Putin responded to a question by a BBC reporter asking if Russia was behind the poisoning of Skripal, saying: “Look we are dealing with agriculture here … And you ask me about some tragedies. Get to the bottom of things there first, then we’ll talk about this.”
Abigail Williams reported from aboard a U.S. government aircraft, Rachel Elbaum reported from London.