Britain Wednesday plunged into the gravest battle with Russia since the Cold War as Theresa May unveiled a hardline response to the “reckless and despicable” attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal.
The Prime Minister announced 23 of Russia’s 58 London diplomats would be expelled as she condemned the nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury.
“They have just one week to leave,” she declared in a damning House of Commons statement. “This will be the biggest single expulsion for over 30 years.”
UK ministers and the Royal Family will also boycott the World Cup; high-level contacts will be suspended; Britain will bring in new counter-espionage laws and checks on flights; and Russian assets will be frozen if they could be used in a bid to threaten life.
Mrs May firmly declared the attack was an “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the UK”, and warned Russia has an “undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law.”
“They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” Mrs May told MPs.
“It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.”
The Kremlin’s London embassy instantly branded the response a “hostile action” that is “totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”.
Moscow flagrantly ignored a deadline of midnight last night to explain how Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, and bystanders including DS Nick Bailey were hit with Novichok .
Mrs May’s move is set to prompt furious retaliation by the Kremlin. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – whose invitation to visit Britain was also revoked – declared: “Britain has continued to stage a political performance.
“Without concrete facts, it is a flagrant attempt to mislead the international community – to which we will have to respond.”
Russia’s Ambassador is understood to have been summoned to the Foreign Office and handed the list.
Moscow is now expected to throw out 23 British diplomats in return. If it expels more than 23 Brits the situation could turn into an ‘arms race’, with Britain expelling declared spies and even the Ambassador himself.
British officials are believed to be maintaining surprise and uncertainty over how they could strike next.
Britain said the nerve agent – up to 10 times deadlier than the feared chemical weapon VX – was produced by Russia.
Britain’s damning retaliation measures against Russia
- 23 of Russia’s 58 London diplomats expelled. They must leave within a week in the biggest expulsion for 30 years
- All planned high-level UK-Russia contacts suspended
- UK ministers and Royal Family will boycott the 2018 World Cup
- Invitation for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s UK visit rescinded
- A new ‘Magnitsky law’ to strengthen sanctions on human rights abusers
- Urgent new laws to ‘harden our defences against all forms of hostile state activity’
- This will include a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border. This is currently only allowed for terror suspects
- Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
- Freeze Russian state assets if they may be used to threaten life or property of UK nationals or residents
- Other covert measures that “cannot be shared publicly for reasons of National Security”
Prime Minister Mrs May had previously said it was “highly likely” Moscow was behind the attack – either deliberately using the nerve agent or losing control of it.
Yesterday, Mrs May said: “Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”
She added: “We have no disagreement with the people of Russia who have been responsible for so many great achievements throughout their history.
“Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.
“But we will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian Government. Nor will we tolerate such a flagrant breach of Russia’s international obligations.”
Yet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said claims of his country’s involvement were “rubbish” and the embassy refused to respond until the UK sends “samples” of the deadly agent.
Theresa May also signalled approval for MI5 to review Putin’s influence over “universities, think tanks, financial institutions and political parties” in the UK.
And she said she expects senior FA officials will want to be “considering their position” over whether to attend the World Cup. The Three Lions team is still due to attend.
Minutes before the statement Mr Lavrov declared there had been “only regress, we don’t see any progress.”
At the same time Britain’s ambassador to Moscow confirmed he had discussed events around the poisoning with the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The United States, European Union and NATO all voiced support for Britain ahead of the statement and Mrs May discussed the case with the leaders of Germany and France.
Donald Trump, who also had a phone call with the Prime Minister, said yesterday: “It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all of the evidence they have.”
Mrs May slammed Jeremy Corbyn for failing to condemn Russia and pointing the finger at 25% cuts to diplomats in his response.
Tory MPs shouted in furious protest as the Labour leader called for a “robust dialogue” with Russia and questioned whether Russia could still have negligently lost control of the nerve agent.
Later Mr Corbyn’s spokesman went further, directly suggesting Russia may not have attacked Skripal.
The spokesman said there were still “two possibilities” and British intelligence had been “problematic” before, such as about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq.
He added, “We do need to base what we do on the facts with evidence rather than supposition” – despite Theresa May directly blaming Moscow.
Former Chancellor Ken Clarke told MPs Russia posed a “serious threat to the safety of the Western world.”
Tory MP Bernard Jenkin told the BBC England should pull out of the World Cup in Russia, adding: “Nasty regimes like to host these big sporting events as a great sort of propaganda coup.”
And Labour MP Chris Bryant accused the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, of lying to MPs and trying to block Parliamentary debates in Britain.
Mr Bryant said: “Since he arrived here 7 years ago, he has repeatedly lied to parliamentarians.
“He has tried to get the Speaker to stop debates on Russia happening in this House. He has tried to interfere in the internal elections of this House.
“And surely to God it is time we now told him that we will order our affairs in this country not him, and he can go home.”
Speaker of the Commons John Bercow confirmed he had been approached saying: “He got absolutely nowhere with me, you can be sure about that.”
The Prime Minister said: “We will order our affairs in this country and we will not be told what to do by the Russian ambassador.
“I fully expect the House authorities to ensure it is not possible for an external party such as that to interfere in elections in this house.”
Russia’s embassy fired off a salvo of tweets last night warning the threat of sanctions would be met “with a response”.
Russia threatened last night to expel all British media in retaliation after Britain warned it could strip Russian broadcaster RT of its UK operating licence.
Lavrov said Russia would be ready to provide Britain with a response within 10 days if London submitted an official request, in line with the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“Instead of submitting such a request, Britain has continued to stage a political performance,” Lavrov said.
“Without concrete facts, it is a flagrant attempt to mislead the international community, to which we will have to respond,” the minister added.
Meanwhile police and MI5 will look into allegations that 14 other deaths on UK soil may be linked to Russia after Home Secretary Amber Rudd bowed to pressure.
And counter-terror police last night launched a probe into the death this week of Russian exile Nikolai Glushkov – who was a close friend of Vladimir Putin critic Boris Berezovsky.
Scotland Yard said a man in his 60s was found at a home in New Malden, south-west London, on Monday and that the cause of his death is unexplained – but there was “no evidence to suggest a link to the incident in Salisbury”.
The Skripals were found slumped on a bench in the Wiltshire city and left critically ill in hospital after being targeted on March 4. DS Nick Bailey, a police officer who went to their aid, was also seriously poisoned.
Police have so far collected 380 exhibits and have been scouring hours of CCTV footage from across the city.
Investigators are also focusing on Mr Skripal’s red BMW, registration number HD09 WAO, and appealing for any witnesses who saw the pair in the car between 1pm and 1.45pm on March 4 to come forward.
What is Novichok, the deadly nerve agent?
This group of nerve agents was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s and is said to be up to ten times stronger than VX.
Novichoks – meaning ‘newcomer’ in Russian – were designed as “binary weapons”, meaning they are composed of two relatively harmless ingredients that only become deadly when mixed together.
This makes them easier to transport, handle and gives them a much longer shelf life than other nerve agents.
Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, the former head of Britain’s Chemical, Biological Radiation and Nuclear regiment told the Express: “It is designed to be undetectable for any standard chemical security testing.
“Skripal would only have needed to touch it, as he opened a parcel, for it to be absorbed into his bloodstream.” Read more here.
The former director of GCHQ, Rbert Hannigan, said the events in Salisbury were “part of a pattern where a modern nation has chosen to step outside the rules that govern behaviour of civilised countries”.
Mr Hannigan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the response should include “the expulsion of diplomats on a scale we probably haven’t seen since the Cold War” but also “hitting the economic targets” including those who do business in London.
But he warned against a large-scale cyber attack against Russia, which he said would “play to Putin’s narrative and probably wouldn’t achieve much except damage all around”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said sanctions should be focused on the imposition of “Magnitsky” measures targeting the assets of wealthy Russians in the UK.
He rejected calls for the England football team to be pulled out of the World Cup, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m more in favour of our fans going and mixing with Russian people… If it’s just England withdrawing it wouldn’t be effective.”
Alexander Winterstein, deputy chief spokesman at the European Commission, said the EU was “ready to offer support” to the UK.
He told reporters in Brussels: “The use of a military grade chemical agent on UK soil in the murder attempt of Mr Skripal is shocking, threatening civilians and endangering the public.”
Theresa May’s damning statement in full
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the response of the Russian government to the incident in Salisbury.
First, on behalf of the whole House, let me pay tribute once again to the bravery and professionalism of all the emergency services, doctors, nurses and investigation teams who have led the response to this appalling incident.
And also to the fortitude of the people of Salisbury. Let me reassure them that – as Public Health England have made clear – the ongoing risk to public health is low. And the Government will continue to do everything possible to support this historic city to recover fully.
Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia.
Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act.
And there were only two plausible explanations.
Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country.
Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.
Mr Speaker, 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.
Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.
So Mr Speaker, there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.
This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.
And as I set out on Monday it has taken place against the backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression across Europe and beyond.
It must therefore be met with a full and robust response – beyond the actions we have already taken since the murder of Mr Litvinenko and to counter this pattern of Russian aggression elsewhere.
As the discussion in this House on Monday made clear, it is essential that we now come together – with our allies – to defend our security, to stand up for our values and to send a clear message to those who would seek to undermine them.
This morning I chaired a further meeting of the National Security Council, where we agreed…
…immediate actions to dismantle the Russian espionage network in the UK…
…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…
…and additional steps to suspend all planned high-level contacts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation.
Let me start with the immediate actions.
Mr Speaker, the House will recall that following the murder of Mr Litvinenko, the UK expelled four diplomats.
Under the Vienna Convention, the United Kingdom will now expel 23 Russian diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers.
They have just one week to leave.
This will be the single biggest expulsion for over thirty years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian State has acted against our country.
Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come. And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.
Second, we will urgently develop proposals for new legislative powers to harden our defences against all forms of Hostile State Activity.
This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of Hostile State Activity at the UK border. This power is currently only permitted in relation to those suspected of terrorism.
And I have asked the Home Secretary to consider whether there is a need for new counter-espionage powers to clamp down on the full spectrum of hostile activities of foreign agents in our country.
Mr Speaker, as I set out on Monday we will also table a Government amendment to the Sanctions Bill to strengthen our powers to impose sanctions in response to the violation of human rights.
In doing so, we will play our part in an international effort to punish those responsible for the sorts of abuses suffered by Sergey Magnitsky.
And I hope – as with all the measures I am setting out today – that this will command cross-party support.
Mr Speaker, we will also make full use of existing powers to enhance our efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those travelling to the UK who could be engaged in activity that threatens the security of the UK and of our allies.
So we will increase checks on private flights, customs and freight.
We will freeze Russian State assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents.
And led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country.
Mr Speaker, let me be clear.
While our response must be robust it must also remain true to our values – as a liberal democracy that believes in the rule of law.
Many Russians have made this country their home, abide by our laws and make an important contribution to our country which we must continue to welcome.
But to those who seek to do us harm, my message is simple: you are not welcome here.
Mr Speaker, let me turn to our bi-lateral relationship.
As I said on Monday, we have had a very simple approach to Russia: Engage but beware.
And I continue to believe it is not in our national interest to break off all dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation.
But in the aftermath of this appalling act against our country, this relationship cannot be the same.
So we will suspend all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation.
This includes revoking the invitation to Foreign Minister Lavrov to pay a reciprocal visit to the United Kingdom…
…and confirming there will be no attendance by Ministers – or indeed Members of the Royal Family – at this Summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Finally, Mr Speaker, we will deploy a range of tools from across the full breadth of our National Security apparatus in order to counter the threats of Hostile State Activity.
While I have set out some of those measures today, Members on all sides will understand that there are some that cannot be shared publicly for reasons of National Security.
And, of course, there are other measures we stand ready to deploy at any time, should we face further Russian provocation.
Mr Speaker, none of the actions we take are intended to damage legitimate activity or prevent contacts between our populations.
We have no disagreement with the people of Russia who have been responsible for so many great achievements throughout their history.
Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.
But we will not tolerate the threat to life of British people and others on British soil from the Russian Government. Nor will we tolerate such a flagrant breach of Russia’s international obligations.
Mr Speaker, as I set out on Monday, the United Kingdom does not stand alone in confronting Russian aggression.
In the last twenty-four hours I have spoken to President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron.
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.
I will also speak to other allies and partners in the coming days.
And I welcome the strong expressions of support from NATO and from partners across the European Union and beyond.
Later today in New York, the UN Security Council will hold open consultations where we will be pushing for a robust international response.
We have also notified the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about Russia’s use of this nerve agent. And we are working with the police to enable the OPCW to independently verify our analysis.
Mr Speaker, this was not just an act of attempted murder in Salisbury – nor just an act against UK.
It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
And it is an affront to the rules based system on which we and our international partners depend.
We will work with our allies and partners to confront such actions wherever they threaten our security, at home and abroad.
And I commend this Statement to the House.