Spy attack: UK expels 23 Russian diplomats

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 14, 2018

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister

Britain is to expel 23 Russian diplomats from the UK and withdraw an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit the country, as it unveiled the first concrete actions in response to the “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”

The moves come in response to the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this month. The diplomats to be expelled had been identified as “undeclared intelligence officers” and their removal represents the single biggest expulsion in over 30 years, Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons on Wednesday, ahead of an urgent session of the UN Security Council to be held at Britain’s behest to discuss the poisoning.

While it was not in Britain’s interests to break off all dialogue, Britain would suspend all high-level bilateral contacts, she added. In addition to revoking the invitation to Lavrov, no ministers or members of the Royal Family will attend the Football World Cup in Russia.

The Russian Embassy in London condemned the decision to expel its diplomats as a “hostile action” that was “total unacceptable, unjustified and short-sighted…. All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain,” it said in a statement.

Deadline and denial

May’s comments came after the deadline set by Britain for an “explanation” from Russia as to why Novichok, a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia, had come to be used in the Salisbury poisonings, passed.

Russia denied any involvement, and condemned Britain’s response, including its failure to share a sample of the agent used with Russian authorities.

“They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance…it must therefore be met with a full and robust response…” May told the House of Commons.

Earlier this week May told the House of Commons it was “highly likely” that the Russian state was involved in the poisonings. “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter — and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey,” she said on Wednesday.

Strong support

May spoke of the “strong support” she had received from allies, including from Germany, France and the US. “We have agreed to co-operate closely in responding to this barbaric act and to co-ordinate our efforts to stand up for the rules based international order which Russia seeks to undermine,” she said.

India’s position is understood to be that while it strongly condemns the action on British soil, it hopes that the issue should continue to be dealt with through dialogue between Britain and Russia.

Other actions being pushed by Britain are legislation enabling the detention of those suspected of Hostile State Activity at Britain’s border and strengthening Britain’s ability to impose sanctions in response to violations of human rights — similar to the US’ Magnitsky Act.

Using existing powers, checks would also increase on private flights, customs and freight, and Russian assets could be frozen if there was evidence they could be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents. However, the Prime Minister did not refer to questions about the future of RT UK, the British TV channel, formerly Russia Today.

Earlier this week regulator Ofcom said it would review RT’s licence, because ANO TV Novosti, the holder of its licence, was financed from a budget of the Russian Federation.

RT has said it is a “valuable voice in the UK news landscape, covering vital yet neglected stories and voices”, and that by linking it to the Skripal developments “Ofcom is conflating its role as a broadcasting regulator with the matters of state.”

Russia has also warned it would take retaliatory action against the operation of British media in Russia if action against RT were taken in Britain.

Published on March 14, 2018

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