By Aishwarya Rai, International News Editor
On Saturday, March 17, Russia’s Foreign Ministry ordered the discharge of 23 British diplomats from Russia after the United Kingdom announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the country just three days earlier, when the UK concluded that Russia was behind the attempted murder of a former Russian spy and his daughter, according to CNN. In a tit-for-tat measure, Russia also made the deadline for the diplomats’ departure one week from the date of the announcement, just as the UK did.
The attempted murder took place on March 4 in the city of Salisbury, UK where a nerve agent called Novichok affected Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal. They are still under hospitalization in Salisbury and are in critical condition, along with 36 other victims that had been exposed to the nerve agent, one of who is a police officer.
Novichok, a colloquial Russian term meaning “newcomer” is an extremely rare substance, according to CNN. It was developed by the Soviet Union in the Cold War in the 1980s and remained a secret until the mid-nineties. It is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid, with constituents that are individually allowed under the Chemical Weapons Convention, making it easy for the liquid to be passed along undetected. Until date, no country other than Russia is known to have been involved in developing the agent, causing the UK to conclude that it was “most likely” Russia that developed it. Part of the conclusion is that the Novichok used was either a weapon deliberately used by Russia or stolen and used by another unknown party.
On Wednesday, March 14, after a meeting with Britain’s National Security Council UK Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the House of Commons with a statement. She stated that the 23 diplomats that are to be expelled have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers; their departure will ultimately mean that Russia’s intelligence within the UK will be degraded “for years to come.” Additionally she mentioned that all planned high-level bilateral contacts will be suspended, according to CNN. In an address to the United Nations Security Council, May mentioned that Novichok is a “weapon so horrific that it is banned in war,” to highlight the danger that had been posed to civilians on British soil. May also stated to the Council that Russia provided no substantial explanation on how the “military-grade” nerve agent ended up in the United Kingdom or was created in the first place, leading to the conclusion that the Russians are to blame ultimately, either for deliberate use or losing control of the substance.
Additionally, Prime Minister May stated that Britain’s security measures for monitoring individuals that travel to the UK will be upgraded, in particular for those who may pose a security threat. She also mentioned plans to 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”. The consequences also extend to high-level contacts; according to CNN, no UK ministers or royals will attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this June and the an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to visit Britain has now been revoked.
NATO and the European Union have apparently shown their support for May’s decisions. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, stated that the U.S. was in “absolute solidarity” with the UK on the matter. Britain’s deputy UN ambassador Jonathan Allen accused Russia of breaking its obligations under the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Vasily Nebenzy, Russian Ambassador to the UN, denied Russia’s involvement and stated that there was no “material proof” to implicate Russia.
In retaliation, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has announced that it will be closing the British Consulate General in St. Petersburg and the British Council in Russia which serves to promote cultural ties between the two countries. The ministry said that these actions, in addition to the expulsion of the 23 UK diplomats, are “in response to the provocative actions of the British side and groundless accusations” regarding the incident in Salisbury,” adding that Russia “reserves the right to take further retaliatory measures” against the UK, should it decide to engage in what Russia deems “unfriendly actions.” According to RIA Novosti news agency, Russian Senator Igor Morozov stated that that the British Council was closed on account that the UK intelligence operated under the guise of the organization. In response to UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s statement that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin personally gave the order for the crime against the Skripals, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN that “Russia has nothing to do with this story,” and that “any reference or mentioning of our President is nothing else but shocking and unpardonable diplomatic misconduct.” Russia has voiced its readiness to assist Britain in investigating the attack, should Britain share samples of the evidence it has in custody.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also made claims on March 17 that the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the UK, or Sweden most likely produced the nerve agent. Czech Foreign Minister Martin Stropnicky tweeted that these claims are “wholly unsubstantiated,” “highly speculative,” and “manipulating information in the public space.”
Both Prime Minister May and the British diplomat to Russia, Laurie Bristow, stated that the dispute and responses on the British side are not against the Russian people but rather against Vladimir Putin and the Russian officials involved.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 20th print edition.
Contact Aishwarya at