New Zealand warned: Russian nerve gas attack 'could happen anywhere'

A forensic covering over the spot Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found.
A forensic covering over the spot Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found. Photo credit: File

An attack on two Russians in a British town could happen in any other country, UK officials have warned New Zealand.

The UK Embassy has cautioned New Zealand that Russia is displaying a pattern of aggression, using increasingly sophisticated tactics.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by a military grade nerve agent and discovered slumped on a bench in Salisbury, south England, on March 4.

They are still very ill in hospital.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told MPs overnight it was "highly likely" Russia was responsible for the attack.

Ms May says the chemical used in the attack has been identified as one of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok, developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Wellington this afternoon, British Deputy High Commissioner Helen Smith warned the attack is part of a sustained pattern of aggression.

"This is part of a pattern of Russian aggression internationally and needs an international response.

"We are keen to get our message out and work with partners overseas in terms of understanding potential Russian culpability for this act."

In the wake of Theresa May's comments, British embassies were instructed to talk to local media about the nerve agent attack and the conclusion that Russia was behind it.

"We are speaking to partner governments around the world and will speak further on potential responses in the event of a response from the Russian government."

The UK has given President Vladimir Putin until Thursday to explain whether the attack was a direct action against the UK, or whether the Russian government has lost control of its nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

If the UK doesn't get a clear explanation by the end of Thursday, it will take that as a signal that it was deliberate and will consider measures like sanctions or expelling Russian diplomats.

When asked why similar international briefings did not take place following the Russian state-sponsored assassination of spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, Ms Smith said Russian tactics have since become more sophisticated, and cyber crime and the spreading of disinformation via social media was not present 10 years ago.

Ms Smith said Russia's actions "have the potential to undermine the rules-based international system which is so important to the UK and New Zealand particularly as trading nations"

"It should matter to us all," she said.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters told Newshub Nation at the weekend there was no evidence that the Russian government was behind the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, or that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election.

When asked if Mr Peters' pro-Russia rhetoric was of concern to the British government, Ms Smith said they have a good relationship with him.

"He's a very respected operator in international affairs. We look forward to a strong positive conversation with him about this incident."