An emboldened Russia will on Thursday attempt to discredit Britain’s international reputation at the UN after a series of blunders by #Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office led to accusations that the UK had overstated its case that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack on the former spy Sergei Skripal.
Although the carefully crafted international alliance in support of the UK has held together despite Russian pressure, ministers were forced to backtrack from a claim by the foreign secretary that the UK’s chemical weapons watchdog had told him Russia was definitely responsible for the attack.
In a statement on Tuesday the chief executive of the government chemical weapons experts at Porton Down said its tests had shown the sample was of a military-grade nerve agent from the novichok family, but it was not possible to say whether it was of Russian origin.
The Foreign Office, under pressure from the Russian embassy in London, also admitted it had earlier deleted a tweet making a similar inaccurate claim to Johnson.
In an effort to press home its diplomatic advantage, and prevent Vladimir Putin acquiring a near pariah status, Russia announced it had convened a special meeting of the UN security council on Thursday at which it would challenge a letter previously sent to the UN by Theresa May that asserted that Russia was likely to have been responsible for the attack.
During a visit to Turkey, Putin called for a thorough investigation into the poisoning, saying “the speed at which the anti-Russian campaign has been launched causes bewilderment”.
Britain’s embarrassment has largely been caused by Johnson during an interview with the broadcaster Deutsche Welle on 20 March during which he said he had been told by Porton Down that they were categorical that Russia was responsible for the attack.
The inaccuracy, branded a lie by Johnson’s critics, led the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to claim the foreign secretary had egg on his face and serious questions to answer. He added: “Either the foreign secretary has information that he’s not sharing with Porton Down or it was a bit of exaggeration. I don’t know which it is, but I think we need a responsible, cool approach to this. We need to get to the source of this to prevent it ever happening again.”
In a tweet Johnson hit back saying it was lamentable that Corbyn was now playing Moscow’s game and had “chosen to side with Russia’s spin machine”. He added: “Porton Down identified nerve agent as military-grade novichok. 2) Russia has investigated delivering nerve agents, likely for assassination, and as part of this programme has produced and stockpiled small quantities of novichok. 3) Russia has motive for targeting #Sergei Skripal.”
He pointed out that 28 countries had been so convinced by the case they expelled Russian diplomats from their countries.