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Theresa May orders biggest expulsion of Russian spies in 30 years in response to Salisbury poisoning

Prime Minister vows to 'fundamentally degrade' Russia's spying network, telling MPs: 'If they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them doing so'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 14 March 2018 13:54 GMT
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Theresa May orders biggest expulsion of Russian spies in 30 years in response to Salisbury poisoning

The biggest expulsion of Russian spies from the UK for more than 30 years has been ordered by Theresa May, as she vowed to degrade the country’s espionage network “for years to come”.

A total of 23 diplomats had been identified as “undeclared intelligence officers” and had been given one week to leave the UK.

The Prime Minister also announced proposed new powers to detain potential spies at the UK border, in her response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms May said Vladimir Putin had responded to her demand to explain the “reckless and despicable act” in Salisbury with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance”.

“There is no alternative conclusion other than the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter,” MPs were told.

It was an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom” which demanded a “full and robust approach”.

In a hard-hitting statement, the Prime Minister said the National Security Council, which met early on Wednesday morning, had agreed “immediate actions to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK”.

There would be “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”.

The Russian Embassy hit back immediately, describing the expulsion of 23 diplomats as “unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”.

But, as well as the expulsions, Ms May announced:

* Plans for powers to “detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border” – a power currently only used against suspected terrorists.

* An amendment to the Sanctions Bill to create so-called “Magnitsky powers” targeting Russian human rights abusers with assets in the UK – named after the lawyer killed in a Russian jail.

* Increased checks on “private flights, customs and freight” – to track people suspected of threatening “the security of the UK and of our allies”.

* A freeze on Russian assets “wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents”.

* A suspension of “all planned high level bilateral contacts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation”.

* A boycott of next summer’s football World Cup by Government ministers and members of the Royal Family.

* Measures that “cannot be shared publicly for reasons of National Security” – an apparent reference to cyber-warfare.

Two days after she set her deadline for Russia to respond, Ms May told MPs: “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.”

The identification of Russia as responsible for the poisoning followed “a well-established pattern of Russian state aggression across Europe and beyond”.

The Prime Minister also welcomed international support from Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron among others.

“We have agreed to co-operate closely in responding to this barbaric act and to co-ordinate our efforts to stand up for the rules based international order which Russia seeks to undermine.

“And I welcome the strong expressions of support from NATO and from partners across the European Union and beyond.”

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