Britain to Expell 23 Russian Diplomats Over Spy Poisoning
Britain says it will expel 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow shrugged off demands to explain how a deadly Soviet-era nerve agent came to be used in the English town of Salisbury to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
The retaliation announced Wednesday by Prime Minister Theresa May to the House of Commons amounts to the unleashing of an economic war against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his coterie of Kremlin officials and oligarchs, with asset freezes and seizures of property they own in London alongside visa bans against named Russian individuals.
The prime minister is pressing international allies to follow Britain’s example and turn the spotlight on the billions of dollars of Kremlin-tied assets around the world.
But officials say even British actions alone will cause some pain to Russians linked to the Kremlin, who, under the plans being drawn up, will have property and assets seized, if they cannot show their holdings come from ‘legitimate’ sources. British officials have powers under criminal finance legislation to start moving on Russian assets.
“The overall impact of what we are planning to do will have serious repercussions for Russia,” a senior British official told VOA.
Kremlin denies involvement
Kremlin officials deny Russia had anything to do with the poisoning of the Skripals, accusing the British of fanning the flames of Russophobia. May had given an ultimatum to the Kremlin to explain the poisoning; but, the deadline passed on Tuesday night with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying there would be no official response until Britain had provided a sample of the toxin and pursued the investigation through the “proper channels” of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia and Britain are signatories to the organization.
In increasingly barbed and menacing exchanges between the British and Russians, reminiscent of the height of the Cold War, Kremlin officials have warned it is dangerous to threaten nuclear-armed Russia.
In the escalating confrontation, the Kremlin Wednesday warned that reprisals would be met with a firm Russian response.
“Moscow does not accept the groundless accusations or the language of ultimatums,” said Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. He added, “We hope that common sense prevails and that countries will think twice whether there is any evidence or not and how justified any accusations against Russia are …Any unlawful British actions,” he adds “will result in a Russian response.”
Pressure to act
Political and public pressure on Theresa May to retaliate for the March 4 poisoning of Skripal, a former Russian military officer who was recruited by MI6 and exchanged in a spy swap in 2010, and his 33-year-old daughter, hasn’t let up. If anything, it has grown in intensity.
Further impetus for reprisals came Tuesday when British police said they had opened an investigation into the “unexplained” death on Monday of Putin critic Nikolai Glushkov, a former adviser to Boris Berezovsky, the deceased Russian oligarch and fierce Putin rival. Glushkov, who the Kremlin had demanded be extradited to Moscow, was found dead at his London home just eight days after the poisoning of the Skripals.
Media reports in London suggest he may have been strangled.
Public anger toward Russia has also increased amid warnings that hundreds of people in the town of Salisbury are in danger from the nerve agent, Novichok, that was used to poison the Skripals. A former Russian scientist who helped develop the nerve agent in Soviet-era chemical warfare laboratories says people who may have been exposed to even small amounts of the military-grade toxin will face health risks for the rest of their lives.
Describing Novichok as “very nasty stuff,” scientist Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who ran the technical counter-intelligence department in Russia’s chemical weapons institute, told Britain’s Sky News it was developed as a “weapon of mass murder.”
Speaking from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, Mirzayanov said, ”It’s the same as nerve gas but 10 times, at least 10 times, more powerful.” He said the agent was designed to wreck the human body and do “irreparable” damage, saying the Skripals would be left as “invalids.”
Mirzayanov also said serious long-term health risks remain for hundreds of Salisbury residents who may have been exposed to trace contamination because of their proximity as the attack unfolded, or who brushed past the Skripals in a pub and a restaurant they visited. Asked about the advice given by British public health officials, including washing clothes and wiping down possessions, he said, “Sure, it’s useful, but not enough, absolutely not.”
Low public risk
British health officials say “the risk to the general public is low.” But their comments aren’t reassuring, say locals, who are seeing increasing numbers of police and army specialists clothed in protective suits deployed in the town of 40,000. Locals complain that the government hasn’t been quick enough to understand the wider dangers.
The Skripals remain hospitalized in critical condition. Meanwhile, a police officer is out of immediate danger and talking, but colleagues say he remains highly anxious. A fourth person has been treated as an outpatient in recent days.