The bitter row between Britain and Russia over the poisoning of spy Sergei Skripal intensified today as Moscow confirmed British diplomats would be expelled over what it branded “insane” allegations.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed retaliatory sanctions after Theresa May declared in the Commons yesterday she was banishing more than 20 of Russia’s diplomats.
He told Russian media expulsions would be announced “soon” as ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova branded allegations Russia poisoned Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia as “insane”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also promised a tough response against the British Government after revealing sanctions were met in Moscow with “strong bewilderment”.
“These are all signs of a provocation against our country.
“The positions of the British side seems absolutely irresponsible to us,” Peskov said.
“We insist that Russia has no connection to what happened in Great Britain,” he told a conference call.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson today accused Russia of glorying the attack on Mr Skripal, which he described as a way of scaring anyone who stood up to President Vladimir Putin.
Theresa May will need to show ‘steel’ in order to deal with the expected retaliation to her decision to expel Russian diplomats, experts have warned.
In fact the move may see Mrs May’s government pushed into more confrontation with the Russian Federation according to Mathieu Boulègue a Research Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia programme at global politics think tank Chatham House.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Mr Boulègue said he was sceptical that the decision will see Russia halt it’s interference in the UK
He said: “In terms of UK-Russia relations they are now at an all time low and they can only get worse.
“This move in reality though is little more than a slap on the wrist and things will likely continue as business as usual.
“This response is about as accommodating to the Kremlin as it could have been.
“On the whole the expulsions may hamper some of Russia’s counter espionage work in the UK, but it is unlikely to be meaningful.
“Russia will need to be seen respond, especially as it is only three days from their Presidential election.
“That is when it will become difficult. Will the UK be ready to up the ante and show the steel needed to to keep the pressure?
“That will have a cost and and are the government willing to pay it? I don’t think they are.”
Yesterday, Britain plunged into the gravest battle with Russia since the Cold War as the Prime Minister unveiled a hardline response to the “reckless and despicable” attack on Mr Skripal.
Mrs May 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.”
Yesterday, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington believed Moscow was responsible for the attack, adding it was a crime worthy of UN Security Council action.
Any effective Security Council action seems highly unlikely, however, given that Russia, like Britain and the United States, is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the body.