UK expels 23 Russian diplomats over ex-spy’s poisoning

18:00 • 14.03.18



British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday, blaming Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and sharply escalating the dispute between the two countries, the New York Times reports.


Her statement to Parliament came after Moscow rejected a British deadline for Russia to explain itself over this month’s nerve-agent attack on the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter. The two countries have engaged in a worsening clash in recent days, with Britain widening an investigation into the incident and courting friends and allies to increase pressure on Russia, while Moscow has threatened to retaliate over any punitive action.


“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” Mrs. May said in an address to the House of Commons. “It must therefore be met with a full and robust response.”


She said she had agreed with Britain’s National Security Council to suspend all high-level contacts between her country and Russia, and to expel 23 Russian diplomats, who were given one week to leave. She described it as the biggest expulsion in more than 30 years.


The prime minister also said the government had agreed on new powers to crack down on the activities of foreign intelligence agents in Britain, that there was no place for “serious criminals and corrupt elites” in the country, and that an invitation for Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov of Russia to visit had been withdrawn.


She added that no British ministers or royals would attend the World Cup in Russia this summer, that Britain would “increase checks on private flights, customs and freight,” and that it would “freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nations or residents.”


“They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” Mrs. May said of Russia. “Their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. They have provided no credible explanation.”


Experts have described a number of tougher measures Britain could also take, like investigating and seizing the ill-gotten wealth of Russians who have invested and settled in the country, changing laws that made it possible to hide the true ownership of assets, and calling on the international community to tighten economic restrictions on Russia. Britain’s broadcast regulator has hinted that it could revoke the license of RT, the Kremlin-controlled English-language news channel.


Since Monday, when Mrs. May said that “it is highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the nerve-agent attack on Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, this month, President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has made a series of statements denying any involvement and threatening dire consequences for Britain if it acts against Russia.


The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Wednesday that Britain was “acting out political drama” rather than investigating the matter seriously.


“Russia could not have had any motives” for the attack, he said, “but those who would like to continue a Russophobic campaign in absolutely all areas of human activities” could have had such motives.


Moscow has demanded that it be part of a joint investigation into the attack on the Skripals, along with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and that Britain turn over a sample of the nerve agent. Mrs. May identified the chemical as a Novichok, a class of extremely deadly nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.


Britain was sending samples of the toxin to the chemical weapons organization for verification, according to a western diplomat who was briefed on the matter, and spoke on condition of anonymity.


The country has tried to marshal support from international organizations, an effort potentially complicated by Britain’s impending exit from the European Union, disputes within NATO, and the reluctance of President Trump to denounce Mr. Putin. Despite those tensions, several of Britain’s European allies have been quick to express solidarity over the attack on the Skripals, who remain hospitalized in critical condition.


Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he stood with Mrs. May on what he called a “brutal attack inspired, most likely, by Moscow,” and said he was prepared to put the matter on the agenda for the council’s meeting next week.


Also on Wednesday, Britain called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the attack, and delivered a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, decrying Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, the country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and civil rights abuses within Russia, as well as the nerve agent attack.


“Russia, as it so often does, will either deny the facts of what we have said today, or will seek to deflect criticism away from itself,” the statement said.


Britain also sought support from the chemical weapons organization and the United Nations Conference on Disarmament.


Mr Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was imprisoned in 2006 for selling secrets to the British. In 2010, he was sent to Britain as part of a spy swap.






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