Britain to expel 23 Russian diplomats over poisoning of ex-spy, says PM Theresa May
‘It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons’
Britain announced on Wednesday it will expel 23 Russian diplomats – the biggest such expulsion since the cold war – and break off high-level contacts with the Kremlin over the nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter in an English town.
Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers that the 23 diplomats, who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers, have a week to leave.
She announced a range of economic and diplomatic measures, including the suspension of high-level bilateral contacts with Russia. An invitation for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Britain has been cancelled, and May said British ministers and royals will not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.
May also said Britain would clamp down on murky Russian money and strengthen its powers to impose sanctions on abusers of human rights.
“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents,” May said, without giving details.
May announced the measures after Moscow ignored a midnight deadline to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The father and daughter remain in critical condition in a hospital in Salisbury, southwestern England.
May accused Moscow of reacting with “disdain” to Britain’s request for an explanation and said Russia’s actions were “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.
“It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons,” May said. “And it is an affront to the rules-based system on which we and our international partners depend.”
The prime minister went on to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for a deterioration of relations between Moscow and London.
“We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way,” she said.
Immediately after May’s fiery speech, Russia’s embassy in London condemned her response as a “hostile action”.
“We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted. All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain,” the embassy said in a statement.
Moscow has refused to comply with Britain’s demands unless the government provided samples of the poison collected by investigators.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Russia “rejects the language of ultimatums”.
Peskov said Britain has so far only offered “baseless accusations which are not backed up by any evidence.” He said Russia would cooperate with the investigation but does not see Britain’s willingness to reciprocate.
Russia has claimed that the nerve agent could have come from another former Soviet country, pointing to Moscow’s foe, Ukraine.
Lawmaker Vladimir Gutenev, a member of the state commission for chemical disarmament, insisted that Russia had scrapped its stockpile of Novichok, the nerve agent used against the Skripals.
“It is hard to say what may be happening in neighbouring countries,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Britain has received support from allies in the European Union and Nato, as well as the United States. May’s office said President Donald Trump told the prime minister the US was “with the UK all the way”.
A joint statement from all 29 Nato countries urged Russia Wednesday to answer Britain’s questions and said the attack was a “clear breach of international norms and agreements”.
“Allies expressed solidarity with the UK, offered their support in the conduct of the ongoing investigation, and called on Russia to address the UK’s questions, including providing full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons”, the statement said.
Britain also called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the investigation.
Here’s a rundown of all the sanctions imposed on Russia by Theresa May
● The expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats. They will be given one week to leave.
● The government will enact a new targeted power to detain people suspected of hostile state activity at borders.
● The UK will increase checks on private flights, customs and freight from Russia.
● The UK will freeze Russian assets if there is evidence they are being used to compromise British security.
● There will be legislation to protect the UK from hostile state activity.
● The government will look at whether new counter-espionage powers are needed.
● The UK has suspended all high level diplomatic contact with Russia. This includes revoking an invitation to the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and there will be no attendance by government ministers or members of the royal family at this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Additional reporting by The Guardian and Agence France-Presse