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Theresa May urges Trump to raise nerve agent attack with Putin

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/07/2018 Pippa Crerar in Brussels
Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg. © Reuters Trump and Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

Theresa May has asked Donald Trump to raise the issue of Russian aggression against the west, including the Salisbury nerve agent attack, when he meets Vladimir Putin for high-stakes talks next week.

The prime minister told Nato leaders, including the US president, that it was time for them to call out Russia’s “malign behaviour”, which was undermining democracies and damaging their interests around the world.

Downing Street made clear that she expected Trump to bring up the novichok attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, which claimed the life of British woman Dawn Sturgess this week, at his summit with Putin in Helsinki on Monday.

Ministers are concerned that the bilateral talks, straight after the US president’s first official visit to Britain, could result in a deal that could harm Nato or heighten tensions on Europe’s eastern borders.

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up while he and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May take part in a family photo at the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.   REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque © Reuters U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs up while he and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May take part in a family photo at the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

However, May welcomed Trump’s decision to meet the Russian president, suggesting that it had the potential to ease tensions with the west and reduce the risk of future confrontation.

Her remarks will be interpreted as an attempt to head off the difficult issue ahead of Trump’s first official visit to the UK, which currently has 800 armed forces personnel in Estonia and 15o in Poland to help protect Europe’s eastern border.

She told the summit: “As we engage Russia we must do so from a position of unity and strength – holding out hope for a better future, but also clear and unwavering on where Russia needs to change its behaviour for this to become a reality.

“And, as long as Russia persists in its efforts to undermine our interests and values, we must continue to deter and counter them.”

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She told allies they should work together to “raise the cost” of malign behaviour whenever it occurred, calling out cyber-attacks, taking action against intelligence networks of hostile states and bringing in tough sanctions against aggressors.

“In recent years we’ve seen Russia stepping up its arms sales to Iran; shielding the Syrian regime’s appalling use of chemical weapons; launching cyber-attacks that have caused huge economic damage; and spreading malicious and fake news stories on an industrial scale,” she said.

The attack on the Skripals was an example of a growing disregard for “the norms and laws that help to keep us safe”, she said, and undermined her vision for a rules-based global order.

Trump’s decision to meet Putin was widely regarded as a blow to the prime minister’s attempts to isolate Russia following the Salisbury attack in March, even though he had strongly condemned the Kremlin’s actions at the time.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May during a family photo ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018.  Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS © Reuters U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May during a family photo ahead of the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

But despite continuing Russian aggression, she told a working dinner of the Brussels summit that the UK’s long-term objective was to eventually have a constructive relationship with Moscow.

“That is why I welcome President Trump’s forthcoming meeting with President Putin: open channels of communication between the US and Russia are key to managing the risks of confrontation,” she said.

Trump and Putin last met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November, although their previous sit-down talks were at the G20 in Hamburg last July.

Speaking before he left Washington on Tuesday for his week-long trip, which also includes his first official visit to Britain, Trump told reporters: “I have Nato, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil. And I have Putin. Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of all.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the Alliance's headquarters ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.  REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi © Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the Alliance's headquarters ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Ahead of the Nato dinner, a senior government source said of May: “She’ll raise Salisbury as an example of how Russia is undermining the rules-based international system.

“The point she’s making is that you can see the list of activities she points to, the way Russia are behaving, and she’s saying firstly that it’s important that there’s a price to pay for this, and we work together as allies to make sure that’s enforced.

“But she also says that in the end we need to be engaging with Russia and that’s why she welcomes the president’s decision to go there. But it has to come from a position of strength and unity of allies.”

Government insiders hope that Trump’s swift condemnation of the Salisbury attack – alongside Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and May – as well as the US’s expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in the aftermath, indicate he will be supportive of the UK’s firm stance on Russia.

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