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Russia expels 23 UK diplomats in tit-for-tat response over spy’s poisoning

iStock/Thinkstock
iStock/Thinkstock

(MOSCOW) — Russia expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a tit-for-tat response to the U.K.’s expulsion of 23 Russian embassy staff over the nerve-agent attack in England last week.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it had summoned U.K. ambassador Laurie Bristow to inform him that the 23 diplomats were now “persona non grata” and had a week to leave. The ministry said it was also closing the British consulate in Saint Petersburg and withdrawing the right of the British Council, a body that promotes British culture and language, to operate in Russia.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was taking the measures in response to what it called the U.K.’s “provocative actions and unfounded accusations” over the poisoning case.

The expulsion marks the latest turn in a confrontation between Russia and the U.K. following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English town of Salisbury. The U.K. has accused Russia of bearing responsibility for the attack, which British officials say involved a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed secretly by Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also cut off high-level contacts with Russia and has been trying to build support among the U.K.’s allies for potential fresh sanctions to punish Russia.

Russia has denied the U.K.’s allegations, accusing Britain of using the incident in a campaign to smear Moscow. Russian officials have increasingly begun suggesting the attack could have been staged by Britain itself. On Saturday, Russia’s envoy to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Alexander Shigulin alleged to the news agency Interfax the “most likely” source of the nerve agent was Britain or the United States. He did not offer evidence for that assertion.

U.K. officials have said a nerve agent from Russia’s so-called Novichok program was used to target Skripal. First revealed by a Russian whistleblower in the early 1990s, the Novichoks were part of a secret Russian effort to develop a new generation of more powerful and harder to detect nerve agents.

Russia has now denied that any program under the name Novichok ever existed, despite the evidence presented two decades ago by the Russian scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who revealed its existence after becoming concerned it violated Russia’s commitments to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russian officials had previously said that Russia had destroyed the Novichok weapons when it had dismantled its chemical arsenal, which was completed last year.

The chairman of the U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee said that Russia’s decision to expel the U.K. diplomats was “hardly surprising.”

“This is really absolutely symbolic and typical of a Russian Federation that has used lying and propaganda as a means of warfare and is now repeating its style,” Conservative party Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat said on BBC Radio 4.

“It’s a great shame for the Russian people that they’re closing the British Council, which has done an awful lot to educate Russian people in English language and help them get jobs and opportunities around the world,” he added.

On Friday, the U.K.’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin personally for the attack, telling an audience, “We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second World War.”

The Skripals remain in a critical condition following the attack that also poisoned a British police officer. The officer is reportedly now in stable condition.

Sergey Skripal worked as a spy for Britain’s MI6 agency while serving in Russian military intelligence in the late 1990s. He was arrested and convicted of treason by Russia, but was pardoned and exchanged in a spy swap in 2010, after which he lived the U.K. The case has drawn obvious parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident former Russian intelligence officer who was killed with a radioactive poison in London in 2006. A British public inquiry found Putin had “probably” ordered that assassination.

Meanwhile, U.K. police have also opened a murder investigation in the death of another Russian exile living in Britain. Nikolai Glushkov was found dead at his home this week. Police said Glushkov died as a result of a “compression of the neck,” suggesting he may have been strangled.

Glushkov was an associate of oligarch and Putin foe Boris Berezovsky, who was also found dead in 2013, apparently having hung himself, though a coroner recorded an open verdict. Glushkov was granted political asylum in London after he was released from prison in Russia in 2004, where he had been jailed over fraud charges.

London’s Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command has said there is no suggestion that Glushkov’s death is connected to the poisoning attack, but that they are investigating because “of associations Mr Glushkov is believed to have had.” Detectives are keeping an “open mind” about the death, police said.

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