Monday 10 December 2018

Kremlin strikes back in spy row

Moscow orders 23 UK diplomats to leave as Anglo-Russian relations crash to post-Cold War low, writes Polina Devitt

A polling station employee hangs a list of candidates for the 2018 Russian presidential election during preparations for the election at a polling station in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: AP
A polling station employee hangs a list of candidates for the 2018 Russian presidential election during preparations for the election at a polling station in St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: AP

Polina Devitt

Russia expelled 23 British diplomats yesterday in a carefully calibrated retaliatory move against London, which has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating a nerve toxin attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southern England.

Escalating a crisis in relations, Russia said it was also shutting down the activities of the British Council, which fosters cultural links between the two countries, and Britain's consulate-general in St Petersburg.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was giving the 23 diplomats one week to leave the country.

The move followed Britain's decision on Wednesday to expel 23 Russian diplomats over the attack in the English city of Salisbury which left former Russian spy Sergei Skripal (66) and his daughter Yulia Skripal (33) critically ill in hospital.

Moscow announced the measures on the eve of a presidential election which incumbent Vladimir Putin should comfortably win.

Putin has cast his country as a fortress besieged by hostile Western powers with him as its defender, and state media is likely to portray the anti-British move in that context.

The Foreign Ministry said Moscow's measures were a response to what it called Britain's "provocative actions and groundless accusations".

It warned London it stood ready to take further measures in the event of more "unfriendly steps".

Relations between London and Moscow have crashed to a post-Cold War low over the Salisbury attack, the first known offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would consider its next steps alongside its allies in the coming days.

"We will never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian government. We can be reassured by the strong support we have received from our friends and allies around the world," May said in London.

UK foreign minister Boris Johnson added to the criticism, writing in yesterday's Washington Post that the nerve-agent incident is "part of a pattern of reckless behaviour" by the leader, citing Russia's annexation of Crimea, cyberattacks in Ukraine, the hacking of Germany's parliament and Russia's interference in US elections.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, to a meeting yesterday morning in central Moscow at its Stalin-era headquarters during which he was informed of the retaliatory measures.

Britain's foreign ministry said it had anticipated Russia's response and its priority now was looking after its staff in Russia and helping those who will return home.

"Russia's response doesn't change the facts of the matter - 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 said in a statement.

Russia's response was more robust than expected.

The closure of the British Council's Moscow office will sever cultural ties, while that of the consulate-general in St Petersburg will end Britain's diplomatic presence in Russia's second city.

Russian news agencies cited politicians in Russia's upper house of parliament as welcoming the move to close the British Council, alleging it had been used as a cover by British spies. The British Council said it was profoundly disappointed by Russia's decision and remained committed to developing long-term people-to-people links with Russia despite the closure.

Russia has complained that Britain has failed to provide any evidence of its involvement in the Salisbury attack and has said it is shocked and bemused by the allegations.

© Associated Press

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