Britain to Expel 23 Russian Diplomats over Skripal Poisoning

Russian Diplomats

This post was originally published on Financial Times.

Britain will expel 23 Russian diplomats it says are undeclared spies and suspend all high-level contact with Moscow, in the first retaliation for suspected Russian involvement in the attack on double-agent Sergei Skripal.

The moves mark a sharp escalation in tension between Moscow and London which threatens to deteriorate into a wider international stand-off.

Theresa May, UK prime minister, told parliament that the expulsion of diplomats was the largest for more than 30 years and would “fundamentally degrade” Russia’s intelligence ability in the UK for years to come. The expelled officials, who have a week to leave, represent nearly half of Russia’s 58 diplomats in the UK.

Mrs May added that no ministers nor members of the royal family would attend this summer’s football World Cup in Russia, and an invitation to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, to visit the UK will be revoked.

She also backed new laws against “all forms of hostile state activity”, including a power to detain at the border those suspected of such activity. New counter-espionage powers will be considered by the Home Office, while the government will propose a Magnitsky-style clause to the sanctions bill, allowing measures against those involved in human rights abuses.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Russian ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, said that Britain’s response was “absolutely unacceptable” and “a provocation”.

Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found seriously ill in Salisbury last Sunday. The UK’s response is greater than the reaction after the killing of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London 2006, when four Russian diplomats were expelled. In the intervening period, bilateral relations were further damaged by Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria.

The UK had given Moscow a deadline of midnight on Tuesday to provide a “credible response” after identifying one of its nerve agents had been used in the attack on the Skripals. Kremlin officials responding by denying Russian involvement, demanding samples of the chemical in question, and threatening retaliation against British diplomats.

Mrs May said on Wednesday that Russia had shown “complete disdain” for the investigation, and provided “no explanation” for having an undeclared chemicals weapons programme in breach of international law.

“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, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey [who was taken ill after responding to the attack],” she said.

The UN Security Council will discuss the matter later on Wednesday, after the UK made an urgent request to update members on the investigation. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, also said he was ready to put the issue on the agenda for next week’s European Council meeting.

The UK has received backing from other Nato countries, which expressed “deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on alliance territory” since Nato was founded in 1949. Allies said Russia should “address the UK’s questions, including providing full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons”.

Russian industry minister Denis Manturov claimed that Moscow had destroyed all its Soviet-era chemical weapons, including Novichok, last year and thus could not be responsible for the attack on Mr Skripal. “We don’t have any chemical weapons at all,” he told the Interfax news agency.

The Foreign Office sought to put the attack in Salisbury in an international context, saying it followed “a well-established pattern of Russian aggression”, including incursions on Georgian sovereignty and a cyber attack on the German parliament.

Mrs May’s statement followed a meeting of the UK’s National Security Council on Wednesday morning.

Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour party leader, failed to back her approach. He suggested that it was still possible that Russia had “negligently lost control” of the nerve agent, and lent credence to Russia’s request for a sample of the chemical. He also accused the government of having “stripped back” Britain’s diplomatic capacity by cutting the Foreign Office budget.

Mrs May replied that there was a consensus among MPs, adding: “I’m only sorry the consensus does not go as far as [Mr Corbyn].” Both the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats backed her actions.

Alexei Navalny, Mr Putin’s top critic in Russia, said that Mrs May’s moves against Russian money in Britain did not go far enough. “23 Russian diplomats will be expelled from Britain. 23 Russian oligarchs and corrupt officials will keep enjoying life in London,” he tweeted.

Mrs May said the government did look at issues around “corrupt elites”. In her statement, she emphasised that Britain could not disclose all the measures it was taking, and was willing to take further steps “should we face further Russian provocation”.

This post was originally published on Financial Times.