Britain EXPELS 23 Russian diplomats over nerve agent attack plunging into worst battle with Moscow since Cold War

UK Russia nerve agent attack: Theresa May to expel 23 Russian ‘spies’ after attempted murder of Sergei Skripal

Theresa May today expelled 23 Russian diplomats, said Royal Family members will boycott the World Cup and targeted Vladimir Putin’s allies with punitive financial sanctions in retaliation for the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

In a Commons statement, she branded as “reckless and despicable” the first known use of such a weapon on European soil and said there was “no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable”.

The Prime Minister announced 23 of Russia’s 58 London diplomats would be expelled as she condemned the nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury.

“They have just one week to leave,” she declared in a damning House of Commons statement. “This will be the biggest single expulsion for over 30 years.”

UK ministers and the Royal Family will also boycott the World Cup; high-level contacts will be suspended; Britain will bring in new counter-espionage laws and checks on flights; and Russian assets will be frozen if they could be used in a bid to threaten life.

Mrs May firmly declared the attack was an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK”, and warned Russia has an “undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law.”

“They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” Mrs May told MPs.

“It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.”

The Kremlin’s London embassy instantly branded the response a “hostile action” that is “totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”.

Moscow flagrantly ignored a deadline of midnight last night to explain how Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, and bystanders including DS Nick Bailey were hit with Novichok .

Mrs May’s move is set to prompt furious retaliation by the Kremlin. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – whose invitation to visit Britain was also today revoked – declared: “Britain has continued to stage a political performance.

“Without concrete facts, it is a flagrant attempt to mislead the international community – to which we will have to respond.”

Britain said the nerve agent – up to 10 times deadlier than the feared chemical weapon VX – was produced by Russia.

Prime Minister Mrs May had previously said it was “highly likely” Moscow was behind the attack – either deliberately using the nerve agent or losing control of it.

Today Mrs May said: “Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”

She added: “We have no disagreement with the people of Russia who have been responsible for so many great achievements throughout their history.

“Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.

“But we will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian Government. Nor will we tolerate such a flagrant breach of Russia’s international obligations.”

Yet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said claims of his country’s involvement were “rubbish” and the embassy refused to respond until the UK sends “samples” of the deadly agent.

Theresa May also signalled approval today for MI5 to review Putin’s influence over “universities, think tanks, financial institutions and political parties” in the UK.

And she said she expects senior FA officials will want to be “considering their position” over whether to attend the World Cup. The Three Lions team is still due to attend.

Minutes before the statement – as Russia’s ambassador to London arrived at the Foreign Office on foot – Mr Lavrov declared there had been “only regress, we don’t see any progress.”

At the same time Britain’s ambassador to Moscow confirmed he had discussed events around the poisoning with the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The United States, European Union and NATO all voiced support for Britain ahead of the statement and Mrs May discussed the case with the leaders of Germany and France.

Donald Trump, who also had a phone call with the Prime Minister, said yesterday: “It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have.”

Mrs May slammed Jeremy Corbyn for failing to condemn Russia and pointing the finger at 25% cuts to diplomats in his response.

Tory MPs shouted in furious protest as the Labour leader called for a “robust dialogue” with Russia and questioned whether Russia could still have negligently lost control of the nerve agent.

Later Mr Corbyn’s spokesman went further, directly suggesting Russia may not have attacked Skripal.

The spokesman said there were still “two possibilities” and British intelligence had been “problematic” before, such as about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

He added “we do need to base what we do on the facts with evidence rather than supposition” – despite Theresa May directly blaming Moscow.

Former Chancellor Ken Clarke told MPs Russia posed a “serious threat to the safety of the Western world.”

And Labour MP Chris Bryant accused the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, of lying to MPs and trying to block Parliamentary debates in Britain.

Mr Bryant said: “Since he arrived here 7 years ago, he has repeatedly lied to parliamentarians.

“He has tried to get the Speaker to stop debates on Russia happening in this House. He has tried to interfere in the internal elections of this House.

“And surely to God it is time we now told him that we will order our affairs in this country not him, and he can go home.”

Speaker of the Commons John Bercow confirmed he had been approached saying: “He got absolutely nowhere with me, you can be sure about that.”

The Prime Minister said: “We will order our affairs in this country and we will not be told what to do by the Russian ambassador.

“I fully expect the House authorities to ensure it is not possible for an external party such as that to interfere in elections in this house.”

Russia’s embassy fired off a salvo of tweets last night warning the threat of sanctions would be met “with a response”.

Russia threatened last night to expel all British media in retaliation after Britain warned it could strip Russian broadcaster RT of its UK operating licence.

Lavrov said Russia would be ready to provide Britain with a response within 10 days if London submitted an official request, in line with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“Instead of submitting such a request, Britain has continued to stage a political performance,” Lavrov said.

“Without concrete facts, it is a flagrant attempt to mislead the international community, to which we will have to respond,” the minister added.

Meanwhile police and MI5 will look into allegations that 14 other deaths on UK soil may be linked to Russia after Home Secretary Amber Rudd bowed to pressure.

And counter-terror police last night launched a probe into the death this week of Russian exile Nikolai Glushkov – who was a close friend of Vladimir Putin critic Boris Berezovsky.

Scotland Yard said a man in his 60s was found at a home in New Malden, south-west London, on Monday and that the cause of his death is unexplained – but there was “no evidence to suggest a link to the incident in Salisbury”.

The Skripals were found slumped on a bench in the Wiltshire city and left critically ill in hospital after being targeted on March 4. DS Nick Bailey, a police officer who went to their aid, was also seriously poisoned.

Police have so far collected 380 exhibits and have been scouring hours of CCTV footage from across the city.

Investigators are also focusing on Mr Skripal’s red BMW, registration number HD09 WAO, and appealing for any witnesses who saw the pair in the car between 1pm and 1.45pm on March 4 to come forward.

The former director of GCHQ, Rbert Hannigan, said the events in Salisbury were “part of a pattern where a modern nation has chosen to step outside the rules that govern behaviour of civilised countries”.

Mr Hannigan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the response should include “the expulsion of diplomats on a scale we probably haven’t seen since the Cold War” but also “hitting the economic targets” including those who do business in London.

But he warned against a large-scale cyber attack against Russia, which he said would “play to Putin’s narrative and probably wouldn’t achieve much except damage all around”.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said sanctions should be focused on the imposition of “Magnitsky” measures targeting the assets of wealthy Russians in the UK.

He rejected calls for the England football team to be pulled out of the World Cup, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m more in favour of our fans going and mixing with Russian people… If it’s just England withdrawing it wouldn’t be effective.”

Alexander Winterstein, deputy chief spokesman at the European Commission, said the EU was “ready to offer support” to the UK.

He told reporters in Brussels: “The use of a military grade chemical agent on UK soil in the murder attempt of Mr Skripal is shocking, threatening civilians and endangering the public.”

Theresa May’s damning statement in full

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the response of the Russian government to the incident in Salisbury.

First, on behalf of the whole House, let me pay tribute once again to the bravery and professionalism of all the emergency services, doctors, nurses and investigation teams who have led the response to this appalling incident.

And also to the fortitude of the people of Salisbury. Let me reassure them that – as Public Health England have made clear – the ongoing risk to public health is low. And the Government will continue to do everything possible to support this historic city to recover fully.

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia.

Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act.

And there were only two plausible explanations.

Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.

Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

Mr Speaker, it was right to offer Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation.

But their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.

They have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent.

No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom; no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law.

Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.

So Mr Speaker, there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.

This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.

And as I set out on Monday it has taken place against the backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression across Europe and beyond.

It must therefore be met with a full and robust response – beyond the actions we have already taken since the murder of Mr Litvinenko and to counter this pattern of Russian aggression elsewhere.

As the discussion in this House on Monday made clear, it is essential that we now come together – with our allies – to defend our security, to stand up for our values and to send a clear message to those who would seek to undermine them.

This morning I chaired a further meeting of the National Security Council, where we agreed…

…immediate actions to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK…

…urgent work to develop new powers to tackle all forms of hostile state activity and to ensure that those seeking to carry out such activity cannot enter the UK…

…and additional steps to suspend all planned high-level contacts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation.

Let me start with the immediate actions.

Mr Speaker, the House will recall that following the murder of Mr Litvinenko, the UK expelled four diplomats.

Under the Vienna Convention, the United Kingdom will now expel 23 Russian diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers.

They have just one week to leave.

This will be the single biggest expulsion for over thirty years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian State has acted against our country.

Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.

Second, we will urgently develop proposals for new legislative powers to harden our defences against all forms of Hostile State Activity.

This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of Hostile State Activity at the UK border. This power is currently only permitted in relation to those suspected of terrorism.

And I have asked the Home Secretary to consider whether there is a need for new counter-espionage powers to clamp down on the full spectrum of hostile activities of foreign agents in our country.

Mr Speaker, as I set out on Monday we will also table a Government amendment to the Sanctions Bill to strengthen our powers to impose sanctions in response to the violation of human rights.

In doing so, we will play our part in an international effort to punish those responsible for the sorts of abuses suffered by Sergey Magnitsky.

And I hope – as with all the measures I am setting out today – that this will command cross-party support.

Mr Speaker, we will also make full use of existing powers to enhance our efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those travelling to the UK who could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the UK and of our allies.

So we will increase checks on private flights, customs and freight.

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.

And led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country.

Mr Speaker, let me be clear.

While our response must be robust it must also remain true to our values – as a liberal democracy that believes in the rule of law.

Many Russians have made this country their home, abide by our laws and make an important contribution to our country which we must continue to welcome.

So what do you think?

Tell us in the comments.

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