Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova gives an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Moscow on March 14, 2018.
Kremlin on Wednesday rejected Britain’s “unfounded accusations” and “ultimatums” over the poisoning of a former double agent in Britain. / AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday expelled 23 diplomats and suspended high-level contacts with Russia including for the World Cup, saying her government found Moscow “culpable” of the nerve agent poisoning of a former spy.
May said she would be pushing for a “robust international response” when the UN Security Council meets later Wednesday in New York to discuss the “attempted murder” of Sergei Skripal and his daughter on March 4.
Russia has denied any involvement and the foreign ministry said May’s statement was a “provocation” and promised “response measures”.
May told parliament that Russia had failed to respond to her demand for an explanation on how a Soviet-designed chemical, Novichok, was used in the English city of Salisbury.
“There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter,” she said.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
NATO allies, including the United States, have expressed their support for Britain following the first use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the deployment was “unacceptable”, adding: “Its use by a state would constitute a serious violation of international law.”
– World Cup boycott –
May said 23 Russian diplomats believed to be undeclared intelligence officers must leave Britain within a week.
Sam Greene, head of the Russian institute at King’s College London, told AFP the expulsion of diplomats was a “standard thing to do” and would draw a mirror response from Moscow.
Mathieu Boulege, a research fellow at Chatham House think tank, said the response was “relatively soft”.
May also suspended all planned-high level contacts, including an invitation for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Britain, but said she did not want to break off relations entirely.
She vowed to clamp down on Russians suspected of “hostile state activity”, freezing assets for those in Britain and detaining those arriving at the border.
May confirmed that neither members of the royal family nor ministers would attend the football World Cup in Russia later this year.
The British Foreign Office also warned its nationals visiting Russia could face some harassment because of the heightened diplomatic tensions.
Alexei Sorokin, the chief of the World Cup organising committee, said the boycott would have “no impact on the quality of the tournament”.
“It is every fan’s choice whether to come or not.”
Russia meanwhile has threatened to expel British media, after suggestions from British politicians that its state-owned channel RT could have its licence reviewed in Britain.
– ‘Choice for confrontation’ –
May said on Monday that it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attack, which left Skripal and his daughter in a critical condition and a policeman also in hospital.
She said Moscow could be directly responsible or may have “lost control” of the nerve agent, and gave it until midnight Tuesday to disclose details of the Novichok programme to the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
On Wednesday, she said Russia had responded with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance”.
Moscow has said it is willing to cooperate but has accused Britain of failing to follow its own obligations for the investigation under OPCW rules, complaining that its request for samples of the nerve agent have been rejected.
May said it was “tragic that President (Vladimir) Putin has chosen to act in this way”, but Moscow blamed Britain for the deterioration of bilateral ties.
“The British government made a choice for confrontation with Russia,” the foreign ministry said, accusing London of pursuing a political agenda.
– Allied support –
May has spoken to US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent days to rally international support.
In a phone call late Tuesday, Trump and May “agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms”, the White House said.
In a joint statement by its 29 member states, the US-led NATO alliance said the attack was a “clear breach of international norms and agreements” and called on Russia to fully disclose details of the Novichok programme.
EU Council President Donald Tusk offered his “full solidarity” and indicated the issue would be on the agenda of next week’s summit in Brussels.
British experts say Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent from a broad category known as Novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union during the late stages of the Cold War.
The Russian chemist who first revealed the existence of Novichok, Vil Mirzayanov, said “only the Russians” developed the Novichok agents.
The case has drawn parallels with the 2006 death by radiation poisoning of former Russian agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, which Britain blamed on Moscow.
British police are now revisiting a number of unexplained deaths that raised suspicions of Russian involvement.