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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Sixty expelled Russian diplomats arrive back in Moscow

UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson: ‘We have entered a new era of warfare.’

An Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft believed to have carried expelled Russian diplomats from the USA stands at the Vnukovo airport, outside Moscow. Uri Kochetkov / EPA
An Ilyushin Il-96 aircraft believed to have carried expelled Russian diplomats from the USA stands at the Vnukovo airport, outside Moscow. Uri Kochetkov / EPA

Sixty Russian diplomats expelled from the US returned to Moscow on Sunday, a result of the biggest tit-for-tat expulsions in recent memory following the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.

Two planes from Washington and New York reportedly landed at Moscow's Vnukovo airport carrying US-based diplomats and their families. More than 150 Russian diplomats have so far been ordered out of the US, EU, NATO countries and other nations.

Britain has called it “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the Skripal attack using the Soviet-designed Novichok nerve agent.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the world has entered “a new era of warfare”.

President Vladimir Putin is “investing in long-range missiles, boasting about nuclear systems and engaging brazen cyber operations. If we were in any doubt of the danger posed by Moscow, we only have to look at events in Salisbury, where our Armed Forces, including the RAF, have been responding to a cold-blooded chemical attack,” Mr Williamson wrote.

The Organisation for the Prohibition Chemical Weapons is in the midst of verifying a UK analysis of the nerve agents used to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, found collapsed on a bench in Salisbury on March 4. Authorities said the highest concentration of the agent was found on their front door. The Skripals remain in hospital.

“This was an illegal and contemptuous use of force against our country by the Russian state, endangering innocent lives. The Kremlin’s response has been to unleash a tidal wave of smears, lies and mockery. The world’s patience with Putin’s malign behaviour has worn thin,” Mr Williamson wrote.

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More than 20 countries have so far said that they would expel Russian diplomats in support of Britain. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats, while the US sent home 60 alleged "spies" and closed Russia's consulate in Seattle.

Moscow responded by expelling diplomats from more than 20 countries including the UK, US, Germany and Canada. Russia also ordered the closure of Britain’s consulate in St Petersburg and the British Council’s operations in Russia.

Russia denies any involvement in the Skripal attack and has warned its nationals to think twice before travelling to Britain, where they could be singled out for harassment.

Russian Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko told Russian television on Sunday that there were “serious suspicions” that British intelligence services were linked to the poisoning.

"They are refusing to cooperate with us and are not giving us any facts. These realities naturally prompt us to conclude that this is a provocation made by the special services," Mr Yakovenko said in an interview aired on NTV Television, Tass reported.

Germany's foreign minister on Sunday said Berlin was open to dialogue with Russia and hoped to "rebuild trust".

"Russia's behaviour in recent years has undoubtedly caused a lot of trust to be lost," Heiko Maas told the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

"At the same time, we need Russia as a partner, to resolve regional conflicts, for disarmament and as an important pillar for the multilateral order," he said.

"That's why we are open to dialogue and hope to rebuild trust bit by bit if Russia is willing to do so."