British PM May Expels 23 Russian Diplomats in Biggest Diplomatic Row Since Cold War

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The United Kingdom responded forcefully to a suspected chemical attack carried out against a Russian ex-patriot living in England since 2010, today.  Sixty-six-year-old Sergey Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia, were found slumped on a bench in Salisbury, a cathedral city in Wilshire, England, about ninety miles southwest of London on March 4.  They have been hospitalized with their conditions described as critical since.

A third victim, a British Detective that visited Skripal’s home at the outset of the investigation has also been hospitalized.  His condition has been described as serious.

Authorities have determined that the Skripals are suffering from “exposure to a nerve agent.”  That nerve agent has been identified as Novichok, a military grade substance developed in the Soviet Union during the 1970s.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May delivered an unusually strongly-worded statement on Monday giving the Russian government until midnight on Tuesday to explain whether the attack was direct action by the Russian government or whether Russia had lost control of its stockpiles of chemical weapons.

“Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” May said.

The Russian government said it would not respond to the U.K.’s demands unless given a sample of the suspected nerve agent to inspect.  Asked by a BBC journalist about the accusations, Russian President Vladimir Putin said tersely this week, “Get to the bottom of [things] there, and then we will discuss this with you.”

Yesterday, Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the Committee for Foreign Affairs in Russian Parliament called the accusations “maniacal” in a post on Facebook, saying England had made a habit of blaming Russia for “mortal sins.”

Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of spying for Britain in 2006.  He was released in 2010 as part of a negotiated spy swap between the nations and had been living in Salisbury ever since.  His daughter Yulia flew to England the day before the two were found.

In comments today from Britain’s House of Commons, May announced a series of retaliatory measures, meant to degrade Russian espionage networks in the U.K.  May said that “urgent work [would begin] 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”.

She announced the expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats whom May did not name but described as “undeclared intelligence officers.”  The individuals have been given one week to leave.  She also rescinded an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit England and said the British Royal Family would boycott the upcoming FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament that will be hosted by Russia this spring.

Russian state assets will be frozen “wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents,” she said, and there will be tougher scrutiny at the border of those suspected of hostile state activity, powers currently reserved for suspected terrorists.

May also announced measures that “cannot be shared publicly for reasons of National Security” something understood to indicate cyber-warfare by observers.

Russia has again vehemently denied involvement in the Skripal attack.  “Moscow’s stance is well-known, London was told about Moscow’s position through diplomatic channels: Moscow has no connection to the incident that took place in the United Kingdom,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“Moscow won’t accept absolutely unfounded accusations against it, which are not substantiated by any evidence, and won’t accept the language of ultimatum,” he added.

May said it was right to give Russia time to respond to the accusations but that “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.”

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

May said she had been in touch with close allies in Europe, as well as the U.S., and that it was agreed “to co-operate closely in responding to this barbaric act and to co-ordinate…efforts to stand up for the rules based international order which Russia seeks to undermine.”

 

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