Russia slams UK as EU nations mull further steps over spy row

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh at the Government Guest House in Hanoi on March 23, 2018.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh at the Government Guest House in Hanoi on March 23, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP, REUTERS) - Russia on Friday (March 23) accused Britain of trying to force London’s allies to take “confrontational steps” after EU members states decided to recall the bloc’s envoy from Moscow and mulled further diplomatic action over a nerve attack row. 

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed Britain for garnering EU support over the poisoning of a former double agent, suggesting that London’s focus was now on making “the crisis with Russia as deep as possible”. 

European Union leaders backed Britain on Thursday (March 22) in blaming Moscow over a nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4 in England, and recalled their envoy to Moscow in a symbolic protest.

EU states are now considering whether to follow Britain’s lead in expelling Russian diplomats and even take other steps, with Lithuania and France among those indicating willingness to take action. 

“As for the decision taken, we regret in this context that again such decisions are taken using the wording ‘highly likely’ and judgements are based on this,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

“We don’t agree with this and we repeat again that Russia absolutely definitely has nothing to do with the Skripal case.” Peskov said.

 
 

Russia did not know what “precise information the British side used when it discussed the topic of the Skripals with its colleagues”.  Russia “unfortunately is not able to receive any information at all directly on the so-called Skripal case,” Peskov said.  

Russia’s top diplomat Lavrov for his part slammed Britain, saying its top officials “are feverishly trying to force allies to take confrontational steps”.  

“We still do not see any facts,” state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on a visit to Hanoi.  “The absence of which makes one think that all of this is a provocation, the investigation has not even been finished yet.” .  

Britons leaving Moscow

May had pressed the importance of a united response to the March 4 poisoning and the 28 EU leaders at the summit in Brussels offered her their full support, agreeing “that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation”.  

The Kremlin has angrily rejected Britain’s claims and Russian officials have offered numerous alternative explanations, including that London directed the attack itself and that Washington may have been involved. 

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats they said were spies, and Russia responded in kind, also halting the activities of the British Council cultural and educational organisation.  

Earlier Friday, British diplomats left their Moscow mission in several minibuses and the remaining diplomatic staff sent them off with a round of applause, RIA Novosti news agency reported.  More diplomatic staff could still be sent home, with several EU members considering expelling their own Russian diplomats.  

Lithuania’s outspoken President Dalia Grybauskaite said: “All of us we are considering such measures.” 

A French presidency source also said Paris was also ready to act.  “Some countries, like France, are ready for possible measures to be decided at a national level in cooperation with other European countries,” the source said. 

The United States, France and Germany were first to back the conclusion that Moscow was to blame for the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.  But Britain’s efforts to win a tough line from all 28 EU members ran up against countries keen to protect their Kremlin ties, notably Greece and Italy.  

Fears of Russian meddling

The leaders of the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Denmark and Ireland all said they were considering further unilateral steps, including expelling diplomats. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told the CTK news agency that Prague may expel several Russian diplomats over the poisoning of the Skripals.  

“Yes, we will probably move in this direction,” Babis said, adding he will discuss expulsions with his cabinet members on Monday.  Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said his government would decide early next week whether to expel diplomats following a security assessment.  

“We are not going to randomly expel people who are genuine diplomats,” Varadkar told reporters.  

Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said his government heard the “strong signal” from the bloc’s leaders who agreed with Britain’s assessment that Russia was to blame for the attack.  He said he would hold consultations with members of his government.  

The poisoning has heightened worries across Europe about Russian meddling – from repeated cyber attacks to what the EU has called an “orchestrated strategy” of disinformation aimed at destabilising the bloc.