Russia expels 23 UK diplomats in tit-for-tat response over spy's poisoning

British ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, leaves after a meeting at the Russian foreign ministry building in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 17, 2018.PlayAP
WATCH Russia expelling British diplomats in retaliation for move made by UK

Russia expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a tit-for-tat response to the U.K.’s expulsion of 23 Russian embassy staff over the nerve-agent attack in England last week.

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Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it had summoned U.K. ambassador Laurie Bristow to inform him that the 23 diplomats were now "persona non grata" and had a week to leave. The ministry announced it was also closing the British consulate in Saint Petersburg and withdrawing the right of the British Council, a body that promotes British culture and language, to operate in Russia.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was taking the measures in response to what it called the U.K.’s “provocative actions and unfounded accusations” over the poisoning case.

British ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, leaves after a meeting at the Russian foreign ministry building in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 17, 2018.AP
British ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, leaves after a meeting at the Russian foreign ministry building in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, March 17, 2018.

The expulsion marks the latest turn in a confrontation between Russia and the U.K. following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English town of Salisbury. The U.K. has accused Russia of bearing responsibility for the attack, which British officials say involved a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed secretly by Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also cut off high-level contacts with Russia and has been trying to build support among the U.K.’s allies for potential fresh sanctions to punish Russia.

Speaking after being briefed by the U.K. ambassador, May said her government had anticipated the Russian response and said: "We will consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners."

"But Russia’s response doesn’t change the facts of the matter," May told the Conservative Party Spring Forum in London. "The attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable. It is Russia that is in flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention."

PHOTO: Specialists in protective suits secure the forensic tent on March 8, 2018, that had been blown over by the wind and is covering the bench where Sergei Skripal was found with his daughter after an apparent nerve agent attack, in Salisbury, England.Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Specialists in protective suits secure the forensic tent on March 8, 2018, that had been blown over by the wind and is covering the bench where Sergei Skripal was found with his daughter after an apparent nerve agent attack, in Salisbury, England.

Russia has denied the U.K.'s allegations, accusing Britain of using the incident in a campaign to smear Moscow. The official Russian response in the past few days has graduated from accusing the British of a rush to judgment to alleging more directly that the U.K. or the United States could have created the nerve agent used in the attack.

U.K. officials have said a nerve agent from Russia’s so-called Novichok program was used to target Skripal. First revealed by a Russian whistleblower in the early 1990s, the Novichok nerve agents were part of a secret Russian effort to develop a new generation of more powerful and harder to detect nerve agents.

Russia has now denied that any program under the name Novichok ever existed, despite the evidence presented two decades ago by the Russian scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who revealed Russia was developing the weapons after becoming concerned it violated the country's commitments to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Some Russian officials had previously said that Russia had destroyed the Novichok weapons when it had dismantled its chemical arsenal, which was completed last year.

On Saturday, though, a spokesman for Russia's Foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, alleged that the nerve agent used in the attack "most likely" had been produced in either the U.K. or the United States, or Sweden, Slovakia or the Czech Republic.

"The most probable source of this chemical is those countries which at the end of the 1990s that were conducting intensive research on the substance from the 'Novichok' project. That is Britain, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Sweden," said Zakharova, according to the state news agency, TASS. "The US also needs to be put under question," she said.

The Czech Republic's foreign minister, Martin Stropnicky, denied Zakharova's claims, writing on Twitter, "this is a standard way of manipulating information in the public space through a highly speculative message being introduced which can not be proven," Reuters reported.

After the expulsions were announced, the chairman of the UK parliament's foreign affairs committee said that the Russian measures also hurt the Russian people.

“It’s a great shame for the Russian people that they’re closing the British Council, which has done an awful lot to educate Russian people in English language and help them get jobs and opportunities around the world,” Conservative party Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat said on BBC Radio 4. The British Council runs language classes in Russia, and offers advise on studying and working in the UK.

The UK will now consider whether to take any further steps against Russia.

Britains Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement on Britains response to a March 4 nerve attack on a former Russian double agent, following a meeting of Britains National Security Council, in the House of Commons in central London, March 14, 2018.AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement on Britain's response to a March 4 nerve attack on a former Russian double agent, following a meeting of Britain's National Security Council, in the House of Commons in central London, March 14, 2018.

On Friday, the U.K.’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin personally for the attack, telling an audience, “We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second World War.”

The Skripals remain in a critical condition following the attack that also poisoned a British police officer. The officer is reportedly now in stable condition.

Sergey Skripal worked as a spy for Britain’s MI6 agency while serving in Russian military intelligence in the late 1990s. He was arrested and convicted of treason by Russia, but was pardoned and exchanged in a spy swap in 2010, after which he lived the U.K. The case has drawn obvious parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident former Russian intelligence officer who was killed with a radioactive poison in London in 2006. A British public inquiry found Putin had “probably” ordered that assassination.

Meanwhile, U.K. police have also opened a murder investigation in the death of another Russian exile living in Britain. Nikolai Glushkov was found dead at his home this week. Police said Glushkov died as a result of a “compression of the neck,” suggesting he may have been strangled.

Glushkov was an associate of oligarch and Putin foe Boris Berezovsky, who was also found dead in 2013, apparently having hung himself, though a coroner recorded an open verdict. Glushkov was granted political asylum in London after he was released from prison in Russia in 2004, where he had been jailed over fraud charges.

London’s Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command has said there is no suggestion that Glushkov’s death is connected to the poisoning attack, but that they are investigating because “of associations Mr Glushkov is believed to have had.” Detectives are keeping an "open mind" about the death, police said.

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