Russia ordered the expulsion of 23 British diplomats in retaliation for the UK’s ouster of the same number of Kremlin envoys over the nerve-agent poisoning near London of a former spy and his daughter.
The British consulate in St. Petersburg was also ordered to close and the British Council must stop its work in Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a website statement on Saturday. UK Ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned to the ministry and told the measures are “in response to the provocative actions of the British side and the unsubstantiated accusations” against Russia, the ministry said.
The action came after UK Prime Minister Theresa May accused Moscow of an “unlawful use of force” involving weapons-grade nerve agent and ordered out the largest number of Russian diplomats from London in 30 years. She also broke off all high-level contacts over the chemical attack that poisoned former Kremlin double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the city of Salisbury on March 4. The pair remain in critical condition.
The first use of a nerve agent on European soil since World War II is a direct challenge to the Western alliance, days before elections are almost certain to give Vladimir Putin a fourth term as Russia’s president.
“This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack” in the UK involving “a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as Russia was and is obliged to do,” Bristow told reporters in televised comments after leaving the ministry.
Russia gave the British diplomats one week to leave. “If further actions of an unfriendly nature are taken against Russia, the Russian side reserves the right to take other retaliatory measures,” the ministry said.
Russia’s response was anticipated and the UK National Security Council will meet early next week to “consider next steps,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London said in a statement on Saturday. “We continue to believe it is not in our national interest to break off all dialogue between our countries but the onus remains on the Russian state to account for their actions.”
US President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron backed the UK in a joint statement with May and said there’s “no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility.
Russia denies involvement and warned for days that it would reply to the UK’s expulsion of 40 percent of its diplomats in London. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has denounced the British accusations as “absolutely rude, unsubstantiated and baseless.”
Russia’s response is “moderate, expected and appropriate,” said Oleg Morozov, a former senior Kremlin official who now sits on the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament. “It’s impossible not to respond in this situation. Britain is acting too defiantly.”
These “are practically tit-for-tat measures, symbolic and reversible,” Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov said. “I wouldn’t call them an escalation.”
UK points finger at Vladimir Putin
The UK’s top diplomat pointed the finger directly at Vladimir Putin, saying it was “overwhelmingly likely” that he personally ordered the nerve-agent attack on British soil. In a rapid escalation of a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the UK’s problem was not with the Russian people but with the Russian leader.
His intervention came the same day as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was willing to support the UK’s investigation into the poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter, and London police said that a Russian man found dead this week had been murdered.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin and with his decision — and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision — to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since World War II,” Johnson said in west London.