Russia expels 23 British diplomats in retaliation as diplomatic spat over Sergei Skripal poisoning intensifies

British Council activities in Russia have also been stopped

Sergei Skripal poisoning: Russia expels 23 British diplomats in retaliation to UK

Russia has announced it will expel 23 British diplomats in a like-for-like retaliation to British measures announced on Wednesday after the UK government blamed Russia for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on 4 March.

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Saturday morning that the 23 diplomatic representatives of the British Embassy in Moscow should leave Russia within a week.

The UK Foreign Office said in a statement it had "anticipated a response of this kind" and the National Security Council would meet early next week "to consider next steps".

It insisted there was "no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable" but said it was not in the UK's national interest "to break off all dialogue between our countries".

"The onus remains on the Russian state to account for their actions and to comply with their international obligations," the statement concluded.

A Russian response to the British measures had been expected for several days and when it came, it went further than expected.

Apart from the expected tit-for-tat expulsions, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it is stopping all British Council activities "due to legal irregularities" and revoking its agreement for Britain to operate a consulate-general in St Petersburg.

The ministry also warned that Russia could take further measures if Britain takes any more "unfriendly actions" against the country.

"We are profoundly disappointed at this development," said a spokesperson for the British Council, adding that cultural relations and educational opportunities are "vital" when "political or diplomatic relations become difficult".

Shortly before the announcement, British ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, was summoned to the foreign ministry for talks, where he learned of the retaliation measures.

As he left the ministry, Mr Bristow said: "This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack in the United Kingdom, the attempted murder of two people using a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) as Russia was and is obliged to do under the Chemical Weapons Act."

"We gave Russia the opportunity to explain how the material got to Salisbury and we asked Russia to declare that material to the OPCW. Russia did neither, therefore we announced certain steps."

Echoing the words of Mr Johnson and Ms May earlier this week, Mr Bristow stressed the UK has no dispute with ordinary Russians but said "we will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and our values against an attack of this sort".

Russia has continued to dismiss accusations of Russian culpability for the attack and to deny possessing Novichok, the nerve agent used in the incident.

The retaliation from Russia comes three days after Theresa May announced that 23 Russian diplomats would be expelled from Britain after Russia missed a deadline to provide an explanation for the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Both remain critically ill in hospital.

In her speech on Wednesday, Ms May also said the UK would step up sanctions on Russia and threatened to freeze "hostile" Russian state assets. She also declared an intention to work against "suspicious" Russian money in the UK.

The UK government has received support for its approach from the leaders of France, Germany and the US as well as from Nato and the EU.

The move announced on Saturday morning – just one day before Russians go to the polls in a presidential election – returns Russia to familiar terrain, responding to what it sees as aggressive actions by upping stakes in asymmetrical fashion.

Similar moves were seen following the banning of broadcaster Russia Today from covering the United States Congress late last year. Russia responded by banning the entire US press-corps from the Duma parliament.

Likewise, the death of a toddler in American foster care was answered with the infamous Dima Yakovlev law, which banned all adoptions by US citizens.

Russia has also been known to hit at what it sees as Western sensibilities – whether that be adoptive care, or the work of NGOs.

While Moscow has long been suspicious of the operations of the British Council, and has harangued the organisation for the best part of a decade, similar thinking may be at play in this case.

The unexpected demand to revoke the agreement to operate the consulate in St Petersburg raises the possibility that Britain will retaliate by closing the Russian consulate in Edinburgh.

On Friday, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson directly accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering the poisoning, saying it was "overwhelmingly likely" Mr Putin personally ordered the assassination attempt.

​Dmitry Peskov, Russian presidential press secretary, responded to the verbal escalation with a further denial of the state's involvement.

"Any reference or mention of our President in this connection is nothing but a shocking and unforgivable violation of the diplomatic rules of propriety," Mr Peskov said.

He said it had become "obvious that there is a lack of any clear proof" of Russian involvement.

The country has demanded access to the case and opened its own investigation into the attempted murder of Yulia Skripal. It said it would not respond to Ms May's allegations until it was given samples of the poison used and such samples were handed to the international OPCW.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed earlier in the week that a request from Russia to access the case materials, including a sample of the poison, had gone unanswered by Britain.

Downing Street announced on Friday evening that Britain had invited OPCW experts to "come to the UK and take a sample". A spokesperson said they expected this process to begin "imminently".

The National Security Council will also meet early next week "to consider next steps," according to the Foreign Office statement released on Saturday.

Agencies contributed to this report

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