U.K. to cut high-level contacts with Russia

U.K. to cut high-level contacts with Russia

U.K. to cut high-level contacts with RussiaNo Ministers or members of the Royal Family will attend the World Cup; Russian embassy calls move unacceptable

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that her government will suspend all high-level bilateral contacts with Russia over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian double agent. No Ministers or members of the Royal Family will attend the Summer World Cup in Russia, Ms. May told the House of Commons.

The government has also decided to expel 23 Russian diplomats and withdraw an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit the country. The diplomats to be expelled were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”.

Ms. May’s announcement came ahead of an urgent session of the UN Security Council to be held at Britain’s behest to discuss the poisoning. The comments also came after a deadline, set by Britain for an “explanation” from Russia as to why Novichok — a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia — had come to be used in the Salisbury poisoning, passed.

“They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance… it must therefore be met with a full and robust response…” Ms. May told the House of Commons.

‘Russia involved’

Earlier this week Ms. May told the House it was “highly likely” that the Russian state was involved in the poisonings.

“There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Skripal and his daughter — and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey,” she said on Wednesday.

The Russian Embassy in London condemned the decision to expel its diplomats as a “hostile action” that was “total unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Ms. May of launching “a groundless anti-Russian campaign”, by pursuing the investigation in a “a unilateral, non-transparent way”, rather than using “established international formats and instruments”. Her statement in Parliament constituted “ an unprecedented, flagrant provocation that undermines the foundations of normal dialogue between our countries”, it added.

Labour’s cautious note

The Labour Party has taken a more cautious note. While condemning the “appalling act of violence”, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Britain’s response to be “decisive, proportionate”, guided by “the rule of law” and based on “clear evidence”. He questioned how the government had been able to rule out the possibility that the nerve agent had indeed managed to get out of state hands to another party. He also asked if Russia’s request for a sample of the nerve agent to be sent had been met.

Mr. Corbyn’s stance is expected to open up divisions within the Labour party, with reports in the British press suggesting levels of discontent over his failure to name Russia. Several Labour backbenchers rose during the debate to express their views on alleged Russian culpability.

Ms. May spoke of the “strong support” she had received from allies, including from Germany, France and the U.S. “We have agreed to cooperate closely in responding to this barbaric act and to coordinate our efforts to stand up for the rules-based international order which Russia seeks to undermine,” she said.

India’s position

India’s position is understood to be that while it strongly condemns the action on British soil, it hopes that the issue is dealt with through dialogue between Britain and Russia.

Other actions being pushed by Britain include legislation enabling it to detain people suspected of hostile state activity — the powers are currently restricted to its ability to detain those suspected of terrorism — and a strengthening of the state’s ability to impose sanctions in response to violations of human rights, similar to the U.S.’s Magnitsky Act.

Using existing powers, checks would also increase on private flights, customs and freight, and Russian assets could be frozen if there was evidence that they could be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents.

However, Ms. May did not refer to questions about the future of RT U.K. Earlier this week, regulator Ofcom said it would reconsider the status RT’s licence, because ANO TV Novosti, the holder of its licence, was financed from a budget of Russia.

RT has said it is a “valuable voice in the U.K. news landscape, covering vital yet neglected stories and voices”, and that by linking RT to the Skripal developments, “Ofcom is conflating its role as a broadcasting regulator with the matters of state”.

Russia has also warned that it would take retaliatory action against the operation of British media in Russia if action against RT were taken in Britain.

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