Britain expels 23 Russians, warns of more action over spy attack

The British government unveiled a range of measures it is taking against Moscow - who it blames for the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
Military personnel in protective clothing removing vehicles from a carpark in Salisbury on Sunday. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been attacked with a nerve agent on March 4 in the area.
Military personnel in protective clothing removing vehicles from a carpark in Salisbury on Sunday. Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been attacked with a nerve agent on March 4 in the area.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • Britain has ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats believed to be involved in espionage-related activities, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced yesterday, in the first wave of measures against Moscow for a nerve gas attack against a former double agent.

Mrs May said she would be pushing for a "robust international response" when the United Nations Security Council met yesterday in New York to discuss the attack on Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4.

Speaking to Parliament, she also outlined a range of other steps, including a halt to high-level meetings with Russian officials and calling off a planned visit to Britain by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents," Mrs May said.

She also said new legislative proposals would be urgently developed to counter any threat from a hostile state.

"This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border," she said.

The British authorities would make use of existing powers to enhance efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those travelling to the United Kingdom who could be engaged in activities that represented a security threat. She also threatened action against "serious criminals and corrupt elites".

On the football World Cup, she said no ministers or members of the British royal family would attend.

Russia, which has repeatedly denied any involvement in the nerve agent attack, said Britain should expect retaliation for its actions.

Mrs May repeated the conclusion of British investigators that Russia had either deployed or lost control of dangerous nerve agents, and said Russia's defiant response has "demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events".

She identified the chemical as a Novichok, a class of extremely deadly nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Britain was sending samples of the toxin to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for verification, according to a British official who was briefed on the matter.

Mrs May gave no further details on the Russian diplomats ordered expelled, but said they were deemed "undeclared intelligence officers". She called it the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain in more than 30 years.

She said more countermeasures were being considered. She added that Britain sought support from the United States, European Union and Nato, but did not outline any requests she made for allies to join in the reprisals.

British media has reported that Britain could launch a cyber attack against Russia, while Britain's broadcast regulator has hinted that it could revoke the licence of RT, the Kremlin-controlled English-language news channel.

Britain yesterday warned its citizens currently in or travelling to Russia in the coming weeks of a risk of "anti-British sentiment or harassment", amid heightened tensions.

"While the British Embassy in Moscow is not aware of any increased difficulties for British people travelling in Russia at this time, you should follow the security and political situation closely and keep up to date with this travel advice," the Foreign Office said.

Mr Lavrov said yesterday that Britain was "acting out political drama" rather than investigating the matter seriously.

Russia's embassy in London condemned the punitive measures as "hostile action" .

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2018, with the headline 'Britain expels 23 Russians, warns of more action over spy attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe