Britain boots out 23 Russian diplomats in biggest stand-off for 30 years – here’s what could happen next.
Theresa May has announced a diplomatic crackdown on Russia that will plunge relations into the deep freeze after the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal .
The Prime Minister announced she’d boot out 23 diplomats in retaliation for the attack that left the 66-year-old, his daughter Yulia and a police sergeant critically ill.
Moscow’s retaliation is expected to be swift.
So what happens then? Will things escalate, and what are Britain’s options?
Our Deputy Political Editor Ben Glaze has been considering how things unfolded today – and what we’re likely to see next.
Russia’s ambassador in London was hauled into the Foreign Office and handed a list of names, moments after the National Security Council agreed to boot out 23 diplomats.
The 23 are thought to be diplomats who have been accused of being spies by British intelligence, and their names are not released publicly.
It is not known how closely they correlate to the 58 names on a publicly-available list of Russian diplomats in London.
Britain now expects Moscow to expel a similar number of UK officials in the city.
Senior Government sources said further retaliation could be unleashed if Russia responds in a “disproportionate” way to the expulsion of its diplomats.
It could include kicking out another tranche of Russian diplomats, such as declared intelligence officers.
Eventually, the Ambassador could also be expelled, but officials are reluctant to make such an extreme move.
Hailing the ejection of the 23 Russians, a senior Government official said: “Although we’ve announced this response, further options remain on the table.
“Economic, diplomatic, legislative and security capabilities can all be brought to bear if needed.
“If we don’t feel that what we have done thus far is having the required effect in the short, medium or long term – a change of behaviour from the Kremlin – we will look at them again and revise them.”
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- Invitation for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s UK visit rescinded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”
Britain wants to maintain the element of surprise
The are other options the UK could pursue which cannot be made public, including investigations which might lead to legal action, the official said.
Whitehall wants to maintain elements of surprise and uncertainty to limit Moscow’s ability to prevent actions.
But Britain IS ready to defend against a mass cyber-attack?
Elsewhere, experts are examining the defences of potential targets for a Kremlin attack on Britain’s cyber infrastructure.
It is also thought protections for vital communications and internet cables, which lie on the seabed and have been monitored by Russian surveillance ships, are being reinforced
The cables criss-cross the seabed, connecting countries and continents.
Defence experts warn of looming retaliation
Defence experts said the booting out of 23 diplomats was “very significant” – and warned of looming retaliation by Moscow.
Royal United Services Institute deputy director general Professor Malcolm Chalmers said: “The expulsion of 23 diplomats is a very significant number. That’s a very high proportion of the Russian presence.
“Everyone expects reciprocal action.”
But it would be “much harder” for Britain’s allies to take “concrete steps” in support of the UK, such as kicking out Russian diplomats.
Prof Chalmers said the Salisbury operation ordered by Vladimir Putin was partly designed for a Russian audience – and he’s facing a Presidential election on Sunday 18 March.
“Part of it is a message to his people, that he’s standing up for his people. There’s a fake news element going on but there’s also an element of almost exulting that this has happened,” he said.
But he added: “It’s a message to the West in general – ‘I can do this without a response’.”
Theresa May must show ‘steel’ to deal with ‘inevitable’ Russian response
By Oliver Milne
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.
But Professor Scott Lucas from the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham disagreed.
He said: “When the Heath government expelled a similar number of diplomats in 1971 it drastically reduced the Russian’s ability to carry espionage work in Britain.
“Twenty three is not a round number, it doesn’t look like these people have been chosen randomly.
“I think they are specifically targeting people they believe could be involved in covert ops and intelligence work inside the Russian Embassy.
But both agreed that any Russian response will see relations between the two nations plummet.
Mr Boulègue believes that the inevitable Russian response could force May to make a decision that she doesn’t have the stomach for.
He said: “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.”
Professor Lucas said that Russia’s action had “crossed a line” which would make the UK more likely to stick to its resolve.
“By using Novichok they’ve gone way beyond a line – so if you don’t respond appropriately it looks as if you are giving them a free pass.
But as all eyes are fixed on Moscow, the international community still has a big role to play according to Professor Lucas.
“The long term success of this strategy depends on well we convince our multilateral allies.
“A lot of it is symbolism – Russia sits on the Security Council so winning a meeting their isn’t going to see international action, but it is about giving your allies a chance to speak out and join you.
“For the Foreign Office the next few days will be about getting people across Europe, in Nato and in partner agencies in the US on board.”
Russia will likely expel diplomats from the UK’s embassy in Moscow by way of a response, Mr Boulègue said.
But the reaction is unlikely to end there.
Professor Lucas said that increased scrutiny of Russian business and financial interest in the UK would likely be mirrored by their security services.
He said: “Reading between the lines it looks like Russia people and money will be under greater surveillance in the UK.
“So this will likely be seen in Russia and could be accelerated.
“That means surveillance, maybe instances of harassment, and if economic sanctions seriously come into play maybe assets seizures or confiscations.
“Also you can expect any restriction of Russian TV station RT by Ofcom will see the BBC and British print titles face similar clampdowns”
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