'Ireland will stand by its allies' - Taoiseach responds to criticism that assessing Russian ambassadors is 'unfriendly action'

Russian Ambassador to Ireland said relations between the two countries are good and Taoiseach should use 'common sense'

Ambassador Yury Filatov speaks to the media at the Russian Embassy on Orwell Road, Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly

Kevin Doyle, Sean Nolan and Shona Murray

Ireland is standing by our EU allies by embarking on a detailed security assessment of unauthorised Russian agents here, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said.

Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yury Filatov warned that any effort to expel diplomats would be seen as an "unfriendly action" but Taoiseach Varadkar said Ireland must stand by our EU allies as the fallout from the nerve agent attack in England continues.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Varadkar said: "We’re part of a European Union which has 28 member states in it.

"Other member states are sometimes subject to attack; we saw a terrible attack today in France and last week an attempted assassination using a chemical agent occurred in England.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on Thursday, March 22, 2018. Leaders from the 28 European Union nations meet for a two-day summit to assess the state of Brexit negotiations, the prospect of a trade war with the United States and how to react to Russia following to the nerve agent attack in Britain. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said Ireland stands in solidarity with the UK over the Salisbury attack (Andrew Matthews/PA)

"Part of the European Union and part of European solidarity is the 28 of us standing together; so if an unfriendly act is perpetrated on one European country; other European countries will stand together and stand by our allies and that’s what we would expect for us and it’s what we will do for other countries."

Speaking at the Russian Embassy in south Dublin today, Mr Filatov said there is no evidence that his government is linked to the attack in Salisbury.

Sergei Skripal

Yulia Skripal. Photo: AP

Earlier in Brussels Mr Varadkar revealed that Ireland is to conduct a security assessment into the presence of Russian agents operating in the state following EU agreement that the Kremlin was responsible for the attack in Salisbury.

“What we’ll now consider in the coming days is to whether we want to take individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland”, the Taoiseach told reporters.

A security assessment is to be carried out in the coming days.

Mr Filatov said his officials have not yet had any contact about the issue from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

He said Ireland is entitled to review the situation but any expulsions would not be in the best interests of Irish and Russian people.

He said relations between the two countries are good and Mr Varadkar should use "common sense".

Mr Varadkar said earlier that a security assessment will be carried out on Russian diplomats based in Ireland.

"What we will now consider in the coming days is to whether we want to take individual action relating to Russian diplomats in Ireland, bearing in mind that what the UK did was to expel 23 diplomats who they believed, were not actually diplomats, were agents," he said.

"So we would have to do a security assessment just like they did before that, we are not going to randomly expel people who are genuine diplomats.

"A security assessment will be done. The minister for Foreign Affairs Tanaiste (Simon Coveney) and I already spoke about this, in the coming days so we will make that decision I would say the early part of next week."

He said that the assessment will involved the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice and the Taoiseach's own department.

Mr Varadkar said the UK shared their assessment and primary investigation in to the case “and obviously other countries who have intelligence agencies as well were able to share their assessment as to what happened in Salisbury”.

“Proposals were made to recall the EU ambassador from Russia for consultations and that was one we supported and supported very strongly”, he said.

The Taoiseach clarified that while Ireland would have to do a security assessment “we’re not going to randomly expel people who are genuine diplomats.”

He confirmed Ireland was now apportioning blame to Russia for the attack.

“The European Union agreed last night and Ireland is part of the European Union – this was on our proposal – we agreed yesterday – as a European Union that we agree with the UK assessment that it’s highly likely that Russian authorities were behind the Salisbury attack”, he said.

Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney outlined the next steps for the Government.

"The UK is Ireland’s closest neighbour and friend and we are in complete solidarity with the British government as they deal with the circumstances and consequences of this appalling attack," Mr Coveney said.

"Ireland shares the UK and European Council assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. The use of chemical weapons in any circumstances is completely unacceptable.

"As the Taoiseach has said this morning we will be considering next week whether it is appropriate for the Government to take additional measures in relation to the Russian Embassy in Dublin, in light of security considerations and in solidarity with the actions taken by the UK. Such actions are also under consideration by a large number of other EU Member States. I will be discussing this with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality over the coming days."

The news comes as European Union leaders agreed on Friday to recall the bloc's envoy to Moscow for consultations, in a symbolic step as the Union backed Britain in blaming Russia for the nerve attack on a former Russian double agent, three diplomats said.

"He is being recalled for consultations," one diplomat said.

German diplomat Markus Ederer is the current head of the European Union delegation to Russia.

The show of support from the EU, at a time when Britain is grappling with its departure from the bloc, will boost UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been asking other nations to match her decision to expel Russians over the attack.

In a joint summit statement, the leaders said the EU "agrees with the United Kingdom government's assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation".

That marked a breakthrough for Britain, which had been seeking to persuade EU leaders to condemn Russia for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter on March 4. It was the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War Two.

After talks that ran into the early hours of Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the prospect of further punitive measures in response to the attack in the southwestern city of Salisbury, saying the European Union would strive to act together on the matter.

"We are determined to react together, with the language we used here, but also possibly through additional measures," Merkel said at the end of the first day of the summit.

May's move to expel 23 "undeclared intelligence officials" was followed by similar measures from Moscow, including the closure of Britain's cultural centre in St Petersburg.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said she was ready to expel Russian spies. Other Baltic states and Poland could do so too. The European Union will recall their envoy to Moscow, German diplomat Markus Ederer, for one month for consultations.

May, who used a dinner with EU leaders to call on all governments to confront Russia, weclomed the support.

"The threat that Russia poses respects no borders," she told reporters. "This is about us standing together to uphold our values."

In the early days after the attack, May won the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump when they said they shared Britain's assessment of Russian culpability.

But in Brussels, May had to convince Russia's allies Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Highlighting the bloc's familiar divisions on how to handle Russia, Slovakia's new prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, said he wanted "constructive dialogue" with Moscow despite the poisoning of the Skripals. British authorities say the pair have been critically ill since the attack by a Soviet-designed, military-grade nerve agent called Novichok.

Leaders agreed to increase their defences against Russian "hybrid" threats, including in disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks and covert actions.

May has also asked fellow European leaders to step up intelligence cooperation to start going after Russian spy networks, diplomats said.

"Britain says there are these networks that organise such things like Salisbury, that these networks exist across our borders and that it would be good to go after them together," a senior EU diplomat said.

Russia has offered several different motives to explain the attack on the Skripals, who may have been left brain-damaged, and to absolve Moscow of responsibility. London has labelled that disinformation and distraction.

On Thursday, Moscow's ambassador to London, Vladimir Yakovenko, said that, had Novichok been used, the Skripals would have died and he rebuked British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for comparing Russia's hosting of the soccer World Cup this summer with Nazi Germany's hosting of the Olympics in 1936.

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin discussed Britain's "unfriendly and provocative" policy at a session of the national security council, RIA news agency quoted the Kremlin as saying.

Ties between Russia and the West plummeted over Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Both have triggered rounds of EU sanctions.

"Russia has shown itself as a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner," a British official said.