Russia spy poisoning: 23 UK diplomats expelled from Moscow


Laurie BristowImage copyright
Reuters

Image caption

Britain’s ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, was summoned to Russia’s foreign ministry

Russia is to expel 23 British diplomats amid tensions over the nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter in the UK.

The Russian foreign ministry said staff from the UK’s Moscow embassy would be expelled within a week.

It also said it would close the British Council in Russia, which promotes cultural ties between the nations, and the British Consulate in St Petersburg.

The move comes in response to Britain’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats.

They were ordered to leave over the incident on 4 March which the UK government has blamed on Russia – but which Russia denies.

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, remain critically ill in hospital, after they were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

The UK government says they were poisoned with a nerve agent of a type developed by Russia called Novichok, and PM Theresa May has said she believes Moscow is “culpable”.

On Friday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the nerve agent attack.

Britain’s ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, was summoned to Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday and was handed Russia’s response to the UK’s sanctions.

Analysis

By Sarah Rainsford, BBC Moscow correspondent

The British ambassador had been expecting this call for three days.

In the end, he spent just over 10 minutes in the foreign ministry where he was handed Russia’s counter-sanctions.

The response from Moscow is robust and does go further than the UK measures. But it doesn’t appear calculated to escalate tensions.

The ministry has stuck to 23 for 23 in terms of diplomatic expulsions, no more.

And while it is ordering the closure of the UK consulate in St Petersburg – both Moscow and Ekaterinburg remain open.

Russia’s response has also targeted the British Council, which promotes cultural ties.

That will be seen by Britain as a low blow, hurting the Russian people – not the British government. But the UK is unlikely to want to retaliate in kind.

The council’s activity here had already been significantly curtailed by Moscow after the last crisis in relations, when Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned.

Meanwhile, the double tactic of denial and distraction here continues, both in comments by officials, and in the mocking, dismissive coverage of the Skripal case on state-run media.

The foreign ministry, in a statement, said that the British diplomats would be “declared persona non grata”, adding that it “reserves the right to introduce other retaliatory measures in case of further unfriendly actions”.

Mr Bristow, after leaving the meeting, said that the UK had no quarrel with the Russian people and would “always do what is necessary to defend ourselves”.



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