The confrontation escalated after Theresa May accused Moscow on Wednesday of an “unlawful use of force” involving a weapons-grade nerve agent and ordered out the largest number of Russian diplomats from London in 30 years. Photo: AFP
The confrontation escalated after Theresa May accused Moscow on Wednesday of an “unlawful use of force” involving a weapons-grade nerve agent and ordered out the largest number of Russian diplomats from London in 30 years. Photo: AFP

Theresa May warns of new Russia sanctions as 23 UK diplomats expelled

Theresa May said the UK may take further action against Russia over the nerve-agent poisoning of a former spy and his daughter after Moscow expels 23 British diplomats

Moscow: Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK may take further action against Russia over the nerve-agent poisoning of a former spy and his daughter after Moscow ordered 23 British diplomats to leave the country in a tit-for-tat retaliation.

“We anticipated a response of this kind and we will consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners," May said at a Conservative Party forum in London on Saturday. Russia also ordered the British consulate in St. Petersburg to close and told the British Council to end its work in the country.

The foreign ministry in Moscow summoned UK ambassador Laurie Bristow on Saturday to tell him of the retaliation for May’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from London. The measures were in response to “the provocative actions of the British side and the unsubstantiated accusations" against Russia, the ministry said.

The confrontation escalated after May accused Moscow on Wednesday of an “unlawful use of force" involving a 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 4 March. The pair remain in critical condition.

‘Appalling attack’

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. Tensions heightened further when UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson said Friday that it was “overwhelmingly likely" Putin personally ordered the operation, a comment described as “unpardonable diplomatic misconduct" by the Kremlin

“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 as he left 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.

Backing May

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 on Thursday 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% 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."

Council closing

The order to close the British Council ends nearly 60 years of its work in Russia as the UK’s international organization for culture and education. It opened offices in Moscow under a 1959 agreement with the Soviet Union and expanded to 15 Russian cities after the 1991 collapse of the Communist state.

Its presence gradually reduced amid mounting political confrontation between the UK and Russia, which also disputed the legal basis for the council’s presence in the country. In 2008, Russia ordered the council to close all its offices except the Moscow headquarters as part of retaliation for the UK’s expulsion of diplomats over the radioactive poisoning of former security-service officer Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. A UK public inquiry concluded in 2016 that Putin “probably" approved the killing.

Russia’s attacking the wrong target with its “misguided" decision to close the council, Clementine Cecil, executive director of the Pushkin House center in London, which promotes Russian culture, wrote on Facebook. “Relations have been poor for a long time, and the cultural field is the only arena where we can have positive, two-way reciprocal communication."

Relations strained further on Friday when London’s Metropolitan Police said that it’s treating as murder the death of Nikolai Glushkov, a close associate of Putin opponent Boris Berezovsky—a one-time billionaire who was himself found hanged in 2013 in his house outside London.

Glushkov, 68, was found dead at his home in the southwest of the UK capital on 12 March. An autopsy showed he died from “compression to the neck," the police said in a statement, adding that there was no evidence he had been poisoned or to link his death to the attack on the Skripals. Bloomberg

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