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Russia expels 23 UK diplomats in retaliatory move in spy row

Russia hits back with tit-for-tat expulsion after UK dismisses Russian diplomats over poisoning of Russian former spy.

Britain's ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow

Russia will expel 23 British diplomats in retaliation against the UK's expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, Russia's foreign ministry said.

The tit-for-tat expulsion follows after the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in London on March 4.

Blaming Russia for the attack, the UK said it would dismiss 23 Russian envoys, the single biggest expulsion in more than 30 years.

UK's Prime Minister Theresa May said on Saturday that Russia's dismissal of the British representatives "doesn't change the facts of the matter" of the poisoning.

"Russia's response doesn't change the facts of the matter - the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable," May told her Conservative Party's spring forum.

Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre in Salisbury, after they were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent. 

A former double agent, Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence before his arrest in Moscow in 2004. He was later sent to the UK in exchange for captured Russian spies.

The British diplomats must leave Moscow within a week, Russia's foreign ministry said on Saturday, after a meeting with Britain's ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow.

Moscow also decided to close the British Council in Russia and to withdraw permission for Britain to open a general consulate in St Petersburg, the ministry said in a statement.

Election factor

The Skripal incident happened just two weeks before the Russian presidential elections, prompting some observers to suggest that the timing might not be coincidental.  

"On the eve of the elections, all those bold moves made by Russia, by the Kremlin are somehow focused on the elections. This is true about the presidential address delivered two weeks ago; this is true about what happened in Salisbury," Nikolay Petrov, a professor of social sciences at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said.  

According to Petrov, Russia's sharp reaction to the measures taken by the UK government are meant for the domestic audience and are supposed to boost the Russian president's image as a leader who "demonstrates Russia's greatness" in the world arena.

The standoff, however, might not be in the best interest of Russia and the government might change its position after the elections.   

"If those moves made by Great Britain are supported by other countries, by the European Union, by NATO, they can lead to a growing confrontation between Russia and the West. And I think the Kremlin will [do] its best to avoid this," Petrov said.  

In his opinion, Russia needs normalisation of relations with the West in order to push through economic development plans Putin has promised to his electorate. 

Novichok nerve agent

The UK's Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has said London would submit a sample of the Novichok nerve agent used in the former spy's poisoning to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a UN body.

Speaking to the BBC news on Thursday, Johnson said the rare Soviet-made chemical weapon used against Skripal and his daughter in the town of Salisbury was specifically chosen to send a message to political dissenters challenging Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

"There is a reason for choosing Novichok. In its blatant Russian-ness, the nerve agent sends a signal to all who may be thinking of dissent in the intensifying repression of Putin's Russia," he said.

"The message is clear: We will find you, we will catch you, we will kill you - and though we will deny it with lip-curling scorn, the world will know beyond doubt that Russia did it."

The attack showed the Kremlin was "clearly willing to act without restraint" and fit a pattern of "reckless behaviour" by Putin, Johnson said.


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