Will NATO Hit Back at Russia for the Spy Poisoning?

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U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the APEC leaders' summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

A joint statement by the leaders of the U.S., U.K., France and Germany said it is "highly likely" the Russian state is behind the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, adding that there is "no plausible alternative explanation."

This emphatic condemnation of the "assault on U.K. sovereignty" signals a united response to Russia. One avenue for taking this response further is invoking Article 5 of NATO, the defense alliance of which all four are prominent members. Article 5 of the NATO charter enshrines the principle of "collective defense"—that an attack on one ally is an attack on all allies.

There are calls for a robust retaliation to deter the Russian state from doing anything similar again. British officials have suggested cyberattacks may be authorized against Russia. The U.K. could call on its NATO allies under Article 5 to joint it in "collective defense measures."

If invoked, Article 5 obliges members to "assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking...such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force", leaving open a broad range of potential retaliatory measures, not just a military response. It has only been invoked once, by the U.S. after the 9/11 terror attack.

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U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting, part of the APEC leaders' summit in Danang, Vietnam, on November 11, 2017. Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images

The joint statement also marks the first time President Trump has pointed the blame squarely at the Russian government. Trump's initial response to the U.K. accusing the Kremlin was "as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be."

"This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War," said the statement from Trump, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.

"The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia's failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.

"We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury."

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Police officers man a cordon near a forensic tent (not pictured) where a man and woman had been found unconscious two days previously, on March 6, in Salisbury, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Skripal, 66, was a former colonel in the FSB, Russia's military intelligence service. He was convicted by Russia in of passing secrets to the British intelligence service MI6 but released in 2010 as part of a spy swap deal. He settled in Salisbury in the U.K.

On March 4, Skripal was found unresponsive on a bench in the center of Salisbury with his daughter Yulia, 33, who was also unconscious. They remain critically in hospital. Toxicology tests showed they were poisoned with novichok, a deadly Russian-made nerve agent 10 times stronger than sarin. Investigations continue.

But Prime Minister May said British intelligence services concluded that the Russian state was probably behind the attempted murder, which bore hallmarks of the Alexander Litvinenko assassination, also pinned on the Kremlin, and Russia's President Putin specifically.

May gave Russia an ultimatum: Explain how novichok could have ended up in the hands of an assassin or face the assumption that Moscow is behind the nerve agent attack. Her deadline passed, and May expelled 23 Russian intelligence officers she said were working under diplomatic cover.

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Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May in Tokyo on, August 31, 2017. May gave Russia an ultimatum: Explain how novichok could have ended up in the hands of an assassin or face the assumption that Moscow is behind the nerve agent attack. Carl Court/Getty Images

No government officials or members of the British royal family will attend the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia. More measures are expected to follow, including the targeting of assets held by Putin-linked oligarchs living in the U.K.

A day before the joint statement was released, NATO issued its own response after being briefed by the U.K. "Allies expressed deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since NATO's foundation," said its statement.

"Allies expressed solidarity with the UK, offered their support in the conduct of the ongoing investigation, and called on Russia to address the UK's questions including providing full and complete disclosure of the novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Allies agreed that the attack was a clear breach of international norms and agreements."

Joint Statement In Full

We, the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, on 4 March 2018. A British police officer who was also exposed in the attack remains seriously ill, and the lives of many innocent British citizens have been threatened. We express our sympathies to them all, and our admiration for the UK police and emergency services for their courageous response.

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War. It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a State party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.

The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia's failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility. We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury. Russia should in particular provide full and complete disclosure of the Noichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Our concerns are also heightened against the background of a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behaviour. We call on Russia to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council to uphold international peace and security.

Will NATO Hit Back at Russia for the Spy Poisoning? | World