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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Britain to expel 23 Russian diplomats over nerve agent attack

Ministers and royal family will not attend the World Cup in Russia

Prime Minister Theresa May is updating the Commons on Britain's reaction to the alleged involvement of Russia in the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter who were attacked with a nerve agent on 04 March 2018 in Salisbury. Will Oliver / EPA
Prime Minister Theresa May is updating the Commons on Britain's reaction to the alleged involvement of Russia in the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter who were attacked with a nerve agent on 04 March 2018 in Salisbury. Will Oliver / EPA

The UK announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday in response to the nerve agent attack on a Russian former double agent.

Theresa May, the prime minister, said that Russia had responded with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance” following her demand for an explanation about the use of the military grade substance in Salisbury, a small city in southern England.

The order for the diplomats to leave the country within a week was the largest expulsion since 1985 when 31 were ordered out following the defection of double agent Oleg Gordievsky to the UK.

Analysts said the expulsions would represent about 40 per cent of Russian diplomatic strength in Britain. The largest diplomatic tit-for-tat was in 1971 when 105 diplomats from the former Soviet Union were expelled by the British government.

Just four were expelled after Russian agents poisoned the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive material in London, leading to his death three weeks later in 2006.

“Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come,” Mrs May told lawmakers. “And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”

Mrs May also announced that high level contacts between the two countries would be stopped, including a planned visit to the UK by the Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. She said that dignitaries and members of the Royal family would not be attending the World Cup in Russia this summer but did not mention a full boycott of the tournament.

She also stopped short of expelling Russia’s ambassador and did not directly mention RT, the Kremlin-backed television station, which operates in the UK. The network’s future will be reviewed separately by broadcast regulators.

Experts have identified the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, as Novichok, a military grade material linked to Russia.

The pair were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday and remain critically ill in hospital. One of the first police officers on the scene is also seriously ill but has been speaking with his family.

Mrs May said that Russia had “demonstrated complete disdain” in its response to UK demands for information and had given no credible reason for how the country lost control of the nerve agent that was developed during the Soviet era.

“There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter - and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury,” she said. “This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

Mrs May also announced further measures against Russia including:

  • New powers to detain suspects involved in “hostile state activity” at the borders
  • Sanctions on Russians responsible for human rights abuses
  • Enhanced monitoring and tracking activity to counter foreign espionage activity
  • Increased checks on private flights and freight
  • Freezing Russian state assets if used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals and residents

Analysts said that the absence of key details cleared the way for further measures depending on the Russian response. Russia’s foreign ministry said it would retaliate soon.

Mrs May welcomed support from allies including the US, Nato and the EU, and said Britain would be pushing for a “robust international response” at the UN Security Council later on Wednesday. Both Britain and Russia have permanent seats on the council.

Nato called on Russia earlier to give Britain "complete disclosure" of the Soviet-era nerve agent used in the attack on Mr Skripal. “Allies expressed deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory since Nato's foundation," the alliance said in a statement.

Analysts said the attack was probably designed as a warning to other potential defectors and critics about the reach of Russia.

The UK could have been specifically targeted because of its vocal criticism of Russian foreign policy, said Prof Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute. “It would be a great success for Russia if the UK were isolated,” he said. A key indicator would be whether the EU continued its sanctions against Russia, he said.

Russia had rejected Mrs May’s ultimatum on Tuesday to respond to claim of state involvement by midnight on Tuesday and said that there would be repercussions.

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Its ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, told reporters that the actions by the UK government were “absolutely unacceptable and we consider this a provocation”.

He added: “We believe that this is a very serious provocation and of course we are not ready to talk in the way of the ultimatums”.

A senior Russian official claimed that Novichok was not part of an international ban on chemical weapons. Vladimir Uiba, the head of the Federal Medical and Biological agency, would not say if Russia had inherited any Novichok from the Soviet Union and whether they were destroyed, according to the Interfax news agency.

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