In Escalation of Poison Conflict, Russia Expels British Diplomats and Closes British Consulate

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday ordered that 23 diplomats from the British foreign service be expelled from Russia. They have one week to pack their bags and leave the country.

The aggressive move by Russia was not only a reaction to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s actions against Russia earlier in the week, it was also a serious escalation of the conflict which began with the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also mandated the closing of the British Consulate General in St. Petersburg as well as the British Council in Russia.  These actions were far beyond the more limited measures taken by May and the British government.

The British Council promotes and sponsors artistic, language and educational programs between the U.K. and Russia.  It is considered a cultural and not a diplomatic organization, so the move was a surprise.

Russian Senator Igor Morozov, a longtime member of the Russian Service of External Intelligence, asserted in a statement that they were closing the British Council because spies “operated under the roof” of the organization.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that its actions came “in response to the provocative actions of the British side and groundless accusations” against Russia over the poisoning in the English town of Salisbury.

“The British side is warned that in case of further unfriendly actions against Russia, the Russian side reserves the right to take further retaliatory measures,” the ministry said.

The British Council responded by saying that it was “profoundly disappointed” by the decision to close it down.  “It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions,” the Council said in a formal statement.  “We remain committed to the development of long-term people-to-people links with Russia as we do in over 100 other countries.”

Relations between the U.K. and Russia have been going downhill very quickly ever since the British government accused Russia of complicity in the March 4 nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, who remain critically ill in a hospital.

On Wednesday British Prime Minister May took action expelling 23 Russian diplomats from the U.K.  She described these diplomats as undeclared intelligence officers. She also said that Russia was “culpable” for the poison attack in on British soil.

Russia has denied involvement in the incident all along, despite evidence to the contrary.  Its retaliation against the U.K. came just one day before Russia holds a presidential election.  President Vladimir Putin is heavily favored to win a second term.

The United Kingdom’s ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, was told Saturday morning of Putin’s decision. The British Embassy has been given a list of 23 specific individuals who are to be expelled.

Bristow said the conflict has been created “because of the attempted murder of two people using a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia.” He also expressed his opinion that the U.K. must defend itself when such attacks occur.

“We have no dispute with the Russian people,” he said. “But we will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies, and our values against an attack of this sort, which is an attack not only on the United Kingdom, but upon the international rules-based system, on which all countries, all countries including Russia, depend for their safety and security.”