Vladimir Putin will expel British diplomats from Moscow in a tit-for-tat revenge move after Theresa May announced she was kicking 23 spies out of Britain over the Skripal poisoning row.
The Kremlin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the move would happen ‘absolutely – soon’ amid a worsening war of words between the two countries.
Lavrov also described claims that Russia was behind the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury on March 4 as ‘unacceptable’.
Speaking to MPs, Mrs May yesterday gave Russia’s ‘undeclared intelligence agents’ a week to leave the UK in the biggest banishment of diplomats in a generation.
She also declared the UK will break off ‘all high level contact’ with the country, impose new sanctions and could seize the lucrative London assets of Putin’s cronies.
But Putin was yesterday seen bouncing around on stage during a rally in Crimea apparently unconcerned by a day of dramatic developments in the chemical weapon poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter – a subject he failed to mention in speeches.
Putin’s chilling performance came as Mrs May – with the backing of the UN – vowed a raft of punitive measures against Russia, a move the Kremlin branded ‘absolutely unacceptable’ as they warned: ‘Our response measures will not be long in coming.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured in Crimea yesterday to celebrated the fourth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the region) has mocked Britain over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury
The PM, pictured in the Commons yesterday, is set to unveil diplomatic expulsions as tensions with Moscow reach levels not seen for decades
Theresa May’s statement to MPs yeserday came after a deadline passed for Russia to explain how Novichok nerve agent came to be used against a former spy in Salisbury
Mrs May, pictured leaving No10 this morning, held a meeting with her National Security Council to discuss the Salisbury attack
Russia’s reaction raises the prospect of a tit-for-tat escalation from the Russians, and Number 10 is braced for British officials to be expelled from Moscow in retaliation.
Mrs May also suggested that covert reprisals would be undertaken – in an apparent hint at cyber attacks.
Last night the UN met in New York as world leaders threw their weight behind Britain with US ambassador to the world body Nikki Haley calling the Salisbury incident a ‘defining moment’.
Mrs May – who directly condemned Putin in her statement to the Commons – said she was determined the measures would ‘fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence’ capability in the UK.
‘They have treated the use of this poison with sarcasm and disdain… There is no other conclusion other than that the Russian state was responsible for the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter,’ Mrs May said.
The carefully-calibrated package was widely welcomed by MPs of all political stripes, although some warned that the government must be ready to step up action again if necessary.
The UK called for an urgent meeting of the UN security council, who met last night in the US.
Nikki Haley, told the council: ‘Let me make one thing clear from the very beginning, the United States stands in absolute solidarity with Great Britain.
May ‘poisoned’ ties by expelling diplomats, says Russian media
Russian media on Thursday accused British Prime Minister Theresa May of having ‘poisoned’ relations with Moscow by announcing the expulsion of diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former double agent with a nerve agent.
‘Theresa May has poisoned relations between London and Moscow,’ Nezavisimaya Gazeta headlined its front-page story.
Kommersant business daily accused Britain of seeking ‘toxic responses.’
‘The crisis in relations between Moscow and London has reached a new peak,’ it said.
May ‘tried to accuse Russia of every sin under the Sun,’ wrote popular pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Russian media on Thursday accused British Prime Minister Theresa May of having ‘poisoned’ relations with Moscow by announcing the expulsion of diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former double agent with a nerve agent
Another pro-Kremlin daily, broadsheet Izvestia, wrote that Russia will respond ‘at least in a symmetrical way’ to the expulsions, meaning it would expel the same number of diplomats.
But ‘Russia’s reaction could be also be more wide-reaching,’ it predicted, citing diplomatic sources.
‘Await a response,’ Izvestia headlined its story.
‘A seemingly emerging warming in relations with London has turned into a long-lasting frost,’ wrote popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.
But it predicted that ‘Russia can bear it all without bowing down.’
Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found in a serious condition in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.
British experts say the pair were poisoned with a nerve agent which was developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
May on Wednesday in parliament announced a number of moves including the expulsion of 23 diplomats and the suspension of high-level contacts with Russia.
Russia’s foreign ministry slammed the measures as an ‘unprecedentedly rude provocation.’
‘The United States believes that Russia is responsible for the attack on two people in the United Kingdom using a military-grade nerve agent. Dozens of civilians and first responders were also exposed.
‘No two nations enjoy a stronger bond than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Ours is truly a special relationship. When our friends in Great Britain face a challenge, the United States will always be there for them. Always.’
Nikki Haley – the US’ ambassador to the UN
Ms Haley said: ‘If we don’t take immediate concrete measures to address this now, Salisbury will not be the last place we see chemical weapons used.
‘They could be used here in New York, or in cities of any country that sits on this council. This is a defining moment.’
Britain’s deputy UN ambassador, Jonathan Allen, has said the government is asking the international chemical weapons watchdog to independently verify its analysis that a military-grade nerve agent from the former Soviet Union was used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
At the meeting of the UN Security Council he said that without any alternative explanation from Russian authorities about the nerve agent ‘we have no choice but to conclude this was a state-sponsored act against the prohibition and use of chemical weapons and in defiance of international law.’
He said the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been informed about the use of the nerve agent and the UN ‘are inviting them to independently verify our analysis.’
He said: ‘We are making every effort to expedite this process.’
But Russia immediately threatened to hit back in kind.
After being notified of the reprisals at the Foreign Office, ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko branded them a ‘provocation’ and ‘unacceptable’ and confirmed there would be expulsions of British diplomats.
And the Russian embassy tweeted that the measures were part of a bid to ‘punish’ Russia under a ‘false pretext’.
It added: ‘We believe it is absolutely unacceptable and unworthy of the British Government to seek to further seriously aggravate relations in pursuit of its unseemly political ends, having announced a whole series of hostile measures, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country.’
They added: ‘Needless to say, our response measures will not be long in coming.’
The dramatic escalation of the spat with Russia came after Mrs May outlined her plans to MPs in parliament yesterday.
Mrs May said: ‘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.
What action has Theresa May announced against Russia?
The PM today unveiled the fleet of measures being taken against Russia today
Theresa May has announced a fleet of tough measures against Russia in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Expulsion of diplomats
Britain will expel 23 Russian embassy staff who have been identified as ‘undeclared intelligence officers’ from the country within a week.
This is the biggest expulsion of diplomats since 1971 when Ted Heath kicked 90 Soviet staff out after the UK uncovered a large Communist spy ring.
All high-level contacts with Russia will also be suspended in protest.
New and tougher anti-espionage laws will be brought forward to help degrade Russia’s capabilities in the UK.
The World Cup:
Ministers and the Royal Family will boycott the football World Cup in Russia this summer.
Britain hopes that other allies will also snub the sporting event .
Theresa May also signaled that Russian oligarchs wanting to come into the UK and live the high life in London will face tough new checks and sanctions.
The Government will now back amendments to bring in a Magnitsky Law into the UK – which imposes sanctions on Russians found to be linked to corruption or human rights abuses.
Private plane checks
While checks on Russian nationals coming to the UK will be stepped up.
This will include increased checks on private flights and extra customs checks.
The UK will also freeze Russian state assets.
Mrs May suggested there will be covert action that would not be announced – an apparent hint at cyber attacks.
But this is unlikely to ever be confirmed by the Government officially.
‘This will be the single biggest expulsion in over 30 years and it reflects the fact 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.’
The expulsions amount to around 40 per cent of the 58-strong contingent at the Russian embassy.
And it is the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since 1971 when Ted Heath kicked 90 out of the country after uncovering a massive spy ring.
By contrast, just four diplomats were expelled following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.
All high-level contacts with Russia will be frozen, with ministers and the Royal Family boycotting the football world cup in the country this summer.
In an apparent reference to the activities of Russian oligarchs, Mrs May said there would be tighter checks on those coming to the country.
She said there could be ‘no place’ for corruption in the UK and the authorities would ‘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’.
Checks on private flights and freight traffic will be stepped up to detect and track those who could endanger the security of the UK.
Mrs May told MPs: ‘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.’
She went on: ‘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 the international effort to punish those responsible for the sorts of abuses suffered by Sergei Magnitsky.’
Mr Magnitsky was a Russian human rights lawyer who was imprisoned after exposing corruption, beaten up in jail and eventually died in custody.
Calling out Mr Putin by name, Mrs May said: ‘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.’
Ministers are now braced for a tit-for-tat move by Moscow.
Investigators in protective suits in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill after exposure to a nerve agent, as the investigation into the attack continues
Boris Johnson was in Downing Street yesterday for the meeting of the National Security Council
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Home Secretary Amber Rudd also attended the NSC session in 10 Downing Street this morning
European Council president Donald Tusk said yesteday that the ‘brutal’ attack could be put on the agenda for a summit next week
Russian ambassador Mr Yakovenko said tonight: ‘There will be expulsions. As you understand in diplomatic practice, there will be answers from the Russian side.’
The Russian embassy to the UK said in a statement: ‘We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted.’
Earlier, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: ‘Moscow has nothing to do with the accident in Britain.
‘Moscow does not accept unfounded accusations that are not based on evidence and a language of ultimatums.’
Mrs May met her National Security Council this morning, after winning support from allies including the US, Germany and France for reprisals.
MINISTERS AND ROYAL FAMILY ARE TO BOYCOTT WORLD CUP IN RUSSIA
Ministers and the Royal Family will boycott the World Cup in Russia in protest at the outrage in Salisbury, Theresa May said yesterday.
All high-level contacts with Russia have been frozen, including attendance at the football tournament this summer.
The PM said: ‘In the aftermath of this appalling act against our country this relationship cannot be the same.’
Mrs May gave no indication that there will be any attempt to compel the England team to withdraw.
But she said she thought the FA would want to ‘consider their position’ in light of her statement.
US President Donald Trump vowed to back the UK ‘all the way’ in the stand off when he spoke to Mrs May by telephone Tuesday night.
The PM had already secured the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
European Council president Donald Tusk said yesterday that the ‘brutal’ attack could be put on the agenda for a summit next week.
‘I express my full solidarity with PM @theresa_may in the face of the brutal attack inspired, most likely, by Moscow. I’m ready to put the issue on next week’s #EUCO agenda,’ he said.
Russia had demanded to see samples of the Novichok substance found in Sergei Skripal’s body before it considered responding to Mrs May’s midnight deadline.
Moscow’s ambassador to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Alexander Shulgin, accused the UK of ‘fomenting hysteria’.
‘Sooner or later they will have to be held accountable for their lies,’ he said.
In an extraordinary series of tweets last night, the Russian embassy to London posted threatening messages accompanied by pictures of what appears to be vials of poison.
But UK ambassador Julian Braithwaite told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this morning that Moscow’s behaviour was an ‘affront’.
‘The council and the United Nations General Assembly have decried Russia’s violations of international law with alarming regularity,’ he said.
‘Its reckless behaviour is an affront to all this body stands for.’
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘The UK has called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to update Council members on the investigation into the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.’
The Russian embassy sent a tweet mocking the plummeting relations between Britain and Russia and warning that they are ‘not afraid’
Prime Minister Theresa May (left) has had her ultimatum dismissed by Vladimir Putin (right) and his officials in Moscow
An officer wearing a protective suit, a gas mask with a hood and rubber gloves inspects evidence in Salisbury last night
Mrs May received support from across the Commons when she delivered her statement yesterday afternoon.
But Mr Corbyn was jeered and met with cries of ‘shame’ as he failed to back the PM’s tough stance.
He prompted gasps of disbelief as he parroted the Russian line calling for Britain to share samples of the poison used against Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia with Moscow to run their own tests.
Timeline of Sergei Skripal’s poisoning
Sunday, March 4th – 4.15pm: Wiltshire Police find a man and woman unconscious on a bench at the The Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury and cordon off the area
Monday, 5th – 11am: Salisbury District Hospital, where the pair were taken, declares a major incident and its A&E department is closed.
8pm: Police officers are first seen outside Mr Skripal’s home in Salisbury
10pm: Police close a Zizzi restaurant near the shopping centre.
Tuesday, 6th – 11.30am: Police also cordon off the Bishop’s Mill pub in Salisbury, where Mr Skripal and his daughter may have gone after leaving Zizzi.
9pm: Firefighters in Hazmat suits are sent to an ambulance base in Amesbury, eight miles away from the scene where they were found.
Wednesday, 7th – 3:30pm: Cordon around Mr Skripal’s house is extended to the top of the cul-de-sac.
Thursday, 8th – 2pm: Police were revealed to have cordoned off the graves of Mr Skripal’s wife and son in Salisbury.
2pm: Police also extend the cordon around Mr Skripal’s home from 50 yards to 150 yards and around the corner.
7.30pm: Police in protective gear go to Ashley Wood Recovery in Salisbury to examine a maroon BMW-3 series, the same car driven by the former spy.
Friday, 9th –10am: Military convoy of 180 troops arrives in Salisbury, including chemical weapons experts, to join the investigation.
3pm: Detectives in Hazmat suits descend on Salisbury cemetery and removed items from Mrs Skripal and her son’s grave.
Sunday, 11th – The army remove police cars and ambulances thought to have been contaminated.
Monday, 12th – Army close off village of Winterslow and Sainsbury’s car park in Salisbury to remove vehicles.
And he used the assassination attempt to blast Government cuts to diplomats, while call for a ‘robust dialogue’ with Vladimir Putin.
There was fresh fury after the exchanges when his official spokesman said MI5 could be wrong in blaming Russia because they were wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Told of the comments, Mrs May said: ‘It is quite wrong and outrageous that the leader of the opposition’s spokesman has made the comments in relation to this that he has.’
John Woodcock was among Labour backbenchers who took swipes at Mr Corbyn’s response in the chamber.
Mr Woodcock, a long-term critic of the veteran left-winger, said: ‘This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation, and (Mrs May) will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance which she is taking.’
Labour former minister Pat McFadden said: ‘Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership.
‘There is a Labour tradition that understands that and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that despatch box.
‘That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds.’
Tory former minister Anna Soubry said: ‘It is noticeable that the length and breadth of this place has completely supported not just the wise words and the leadership of the Prime Minister, but also her firm actions.
‘With the notable exception of the frontbench of the opposition, and that is a shameful moment.’
Tory former minister Mark Francois praised Mrs May’s response as ‘having flashes of the Iron Lady about it’, and said it was ‘in stark contrast to the attitude of the leader of the Opposition’.
He branded Mr Corbyn a ‘CND-badge wearing apologist for the Russian state’.
Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat urged Mrs May to ‘use the tools at her disposal to expose the wealth’ of Mr Putin and his family in the wake of the nerve agent attack.
Mr Tugendhat said he wanted to see more use of ‘unexplained wealth orders’.
‘Could I also ask her if she will use the tools at her disposal to expose the wealth of the Putin family,’ the Tory MP said.
‘Three billion dollars (£2.15billion) or more has been stolen from the Russian people by that man.
Mr Corbyn was jeered and met with cries of ‘shame’ as he failed to back the PM’s tough stance
There was fresh fury after the exchanges in the Commons when Mr Corbyn’s official spokesman said MI5 could be wrong in blaming Russia because they were wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
‘We should expose him for what he is and not be a useful idiot hiding behind legalism of his crimes.’
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable added his voice to the calls for more use of unexplained wealth orders.
He said: ‘Can I ask what is her response to the brave leader of the opposition in Russia Alexei Navalny – who is not allowed to stand in the presidential election – who has said that the most effective action the British Government can take is to use its legal powers such as the unexplained wealth orders against named individuals who are critical to the Putin operation.
‘He names in particular Mr Alisher Usmanov, who has substantial property and sporting interests, and the First Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Igor Shuvalov, who owns, among other things, a £14 million flat overlooking the Ministry of Defence. Will the Prime Minister act?’
Mrs May said: ‘On the unexplained wealth orders, of course those are tools that we do use but we have to use properly in accordance with the rule of law following the due processes that should take place.’
As relations between the two countries hit the lowest point since the Cold War overnight on Tuesday, Nikolai Glushkov, the right-hand man of Mr Putin’s ‘personal enemy number one’, was found dead at his London home.
Investigators in protective suits in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury, where former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found critically ill after exposure to a nerve agent
He is said to have borne marks of strangulation.
It was also claimed that Mr Skripal and his daughter might have been poisoned when the nerve agent was smeared on the door handles of their car.
In its string of messages, the Russian embassy feed stated: ‘Moscow will not respond to London’s ultimatum until it receives samples of the chemical substance to which the UK investigators are referring.
‘Britain must comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention which stipulates joint investigation into the incident, for which Moscow is ready.
‘Without that, there can be no sense in any statements from London. The incident appears to be yet another crooked attempt by the UK authorities to discredit Russia.
‘Any threat to take ‘punitive’ measures against Russia will meet with a response. The British side should be aware of that.’
Following the call with Mrs Merkel, Downing Street said: ‘They discussed the pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed it would be important to act in unison with allies to counter it.
US President Donald Trump told Mrs May in a call last night that he was with Britain ‘all the way’ and demanded Russia provide ‘unambiguous’ answers
Theresa May has held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Angela Merkel on the phone about the Salisbury attempted murder
‘Chancellor Merkel condemned the attack and said she stood in full solidarity with the UK.
‘They agreed that the international community should coordinate closely as the investigation developed and in the wake of Russia’s response.’
The former director of Britain’s communications spying agency GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, said her response should include ‘the expulsion of diplomats on a scale we probably haven’t seen since the Cold War’.
Speaking to BBC radio, Hannigan also backed ‘hitting the economic targets’, including Russians doing business in London, but warned against a large-scale cyberattack.
Senior MEP Guy Verhofstadt offered EU support and said: ‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with the British people.
‘It must be made clear that an attack against one EU & NATO country is an attack on all of us.’
But Britain will need to get support from the UN and Nato allies in order to impose sanctions that will really bite and be felt by the Kremlin.
The PM dramatically pointed the finger at Putin for the poison attack on Monday, saying it was ‘highly likely’ it was linked to Russia.
Branding the attack a ‘reckless and despicable act’, Mrs May said the substance used was a ‘military grade’ agent Moscow has produced.
Together with Russia’s previous actions and tactics, including the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, the UK authorities concluded it was ‘highly likely’ to be involved in the episode.
Mrs May said the government would not accept such an attempt to ‘murder innocent civilians on our soil’.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said allies are mobilising to support the UK and hit back at Russia. Speaking Tuesday, he said: ‘I’ve been very encouraged so far by the strength of the support that we are getting.
Police have put a forensics tent over the parking meter outside Salisbury’s Sainsbury’s store amid fears it was used by Sergei Skripal
Vladimir Putin said in a Russia TV interview he could forgive nearly everything, but not ‘betrayal’ – but the Kremlin has denied plotting to kill Sergei Skripal
‘I think in particular from President Macron of France, I talked to Sigmar Gabriel my German counterpart, and from Washington where Rex Tillerson last night made it absolutely clear that he sees this as part of a pattern of disruptive behaviour, increasingly disruptive behaviour, malign behaviour by Russia, the reckless use of chemical weapons, the support for the reckless use of chemical weapons which stretches from Syria now to the streets of Salisbury.
‘I’ve been encouraged by the willingness of our friends to show support and solidarity.’
Whitehall sources said they were accelerating their offensive cyber programme and could hit select targets for a specific effect.
It is understood this could see a specialist cyber unit deployed in the UK to attack Kremlin computer networks spewing Russian propaganda and trolling factories spreading fake news.
General Sir Chris Deverell, commander of Joint Forces Command, has revealed how the UK has a specialist unit which is dedicated to ‘offensive cyber’ run jointly by the MoD and GCHQ.
So far it has worked on Islamic State but this could be expanded towards Russia.
In an interview with the Mail last week, he said the military could hit back at disinformation spread by Russian trolling factories.
He said: ‘There are two ways you could respond. One is putting your own messages out to compete with the messages that actors like that are sending. And the other is with a cyber-attack.
‘Whether or not you could use cyber as a weapon would depend upon the specific circumstances and the law.’ He said that there was a specific capability in which troops tackle mistruths spread by enemies.
Another option is for the Government to implement a British version of the US’s Magnitsky Act, which lists Russians involved in corruption and human rights abuses, banning them from entering the country.
The Kremlin was given a deadline of midnight to respond to the evidence, but has refused to do so.
Doubts were raised about the US’s backing yesterday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sacked hours after condemning Russia.
However, it appears the axing of Mr Tillerson was unrelated and Mr Trump has now offered his support.
Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia (pictured in Zizzi in 2016) left a trail of nerve agent in the restaurant after their poisoning
Locals have said chemical weapons experts are removing a potentially contaminated vehicle from a local business
The investigation into the poisoning has led to a series of locations around Salisbury being sealed off and decontaminated
Soldiers in Hazmat suits closed down a village near Salisbury yesterday as they removed a recovery truck thought to have towed Mr Skripal’s car from the scene