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UK to expel Russian diplomats over nerve agent poisoning

March 14, 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said the UK is to expel 23 Russian diplomats in connection with the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Moscow has threatened a tit-for-tat response.

Theresa May
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/F. Augstein

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday said the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats identified as "undeclared intelligence officers" after Russia failed to provide an explanation for a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy.

May said the 23 diplomats who had been identified would be expelled under the Vienna Convention and had one week to leave the country. 

Read more: Opinion: Dealing with Russia, Theresa May finds herself alone at home

May addressed parliament on Wednesday after chairing a national security meeting called in response to British military lab findings that a variant of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok was used against ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia some 10 days ago. The two remain in critical condition.

Read moreNovichok nerve agents – Russia's dangerous 'new' poison

Measures to 'degrade Russian intelligence'

In addition to the expulsions, May said the UK would suspend all high-level bilateral contact with Russia, saying Russia's response had "demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events." No senior officials or the royal family will attend the World Cup in Russia in June, she said. 

Britain's Foreign Office warned that UK citizens planning to travel to Russia in the near future could face "anti-British sentiment or harassment" there as a result of heightened tensions. It advised them to "remain vigilant, avoid any protests or demonstrations and avoid commenting publically on political developments." 

The biggest expulsions from London in 30 years would "fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability for years to come," May said.

"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," she added. "There is no place for these people — or their money — in our country."

The British prime minister said Monday it was "highly likely" Moscow was behind the attack, or that it had "lost control" of the nerve agent.

Russia denies allegations

Following May's statement on Wednesday, the Russian Embassy to the UK condemned the British government's decision to expel Russian diplomats as a "hostile action" that is "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 on its website.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko said Britain's actions were "a provocation."

A midnight Tuesday deadline set by May for an explanation passed without a response from Russia. Russia has said it would cooperate, but demanded Britain provide samples of the nerve agent. Russia wanted 10 days to respond.

Moscow has denied any involvement in the attack on the ex-spy in Salisbury, southwest England.

International reactions

The United States, EU and NATO have said they stand with Britain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there would be a "united European opinion" on the poisoning, but she rejected the idea of acting as an intermediary between Russia and Britain.

"We take the findings of the British government very seriously," Merkel told broadcaster ARD. "Nonetheless, I say we can't break off all contacts now. We must still talk with the Russians despite all differences of opinion,"

France's government described the attack as a "very serious act," and said it was waiting for proof before deciding whether to take countermeasures against Russia in solidarity with its "strategic ally" in London.

"Once the elements are proven, decisions will be made," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters.

The UN Security Council is meeting in New York later Wednesday to discuss the attack. EU Council President Donald Tusk said the incident would also be on the agenda at a summit of the bloc's leaders in Brussels next week.

Read more: Spy assassinations: The top 5 deadly poisons

Former NATO deputy commander: 'Salisbury attack comes under NATO Article 5'

General Sir Richard Shirreff, former deputy commander for NATO forces in Europe, told DW on Wednesday that, should Russia prove to be responsible for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, it would fall under NATO's heading of Article 5 — the principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all. 

"The delivery of a military grade nerve agent in an attack on a sovereign NATO nation I reckon in the 21st century comes under the heading of Article 5," Shirreff said, adding that a tough NATO response was necessary to deter Russia from carrying out similar attacks in the future. 

Read more: How does Germany contribute to NATO?

"The desired effect is a NATO deterrent posture that raises the bar of risks sufficiently high to ensure that no decision-maker in the Kremlin or anywhere else decides that they might just have a go at NATO territory," he said. "That has got to be not only the capability to deter asymmetric hybrid attacks ... but also conventional deterrence," such as bolstering and further integrating armed forces.

Shirreff also warned that the nerve agent attack risked becoming a catalyst for a "series of events, misunderstandings and miscalculations" between Russia and West, once again emphasizing the importance of robust deterrence and defense policy among NATO members.

dm, cw/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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