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Britain hails ‘turning point’ after suspected Russian spy expulsions

The Russian Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, on Monday. Britain’s allies in Europe and around the world have expelled scores of suspected Russian spies in an unprecedented response to a nerve agent attack. AFP
The Russian Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, on Monday. Britain’s allies in Europe and around the world have expelled scores of suspected Russian spies in an unprecedented response to a nerve agent attack. AFP

Britain hails ‘turning point’ after suspected Russian spy expulsions

Britainon Tuesday hailed the mass expulsion of more than 100 suspected Russian spies around the world as a “turning point” for the West’s attitude to a “reckless” Russia, as Moscow warned it would retaliate against “loutish behaviour”.

Ireland on Tuesday became the latest country to order out a Russian diplomat, with at least 117 Russian diplomats ordered out by 24 governments over two days, dwarfing similar measures during Cold War spying disputes.

“Never before have so many countries come together to expel Russian diplomats,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, calling it “a “blow from which Russian intelligence will need many years to recover”.

“I believe that yesterday’s events could become a turning point,” he said, adding: “The Western alliance took decisive action and Britain’s partners came together against the Kremlin’s reckless ambitions”.

The expulsions were a response to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Skripal, a Russian military intelligence officer imprisoned by Moscow for passing on information about Russian agents in various European countries, came to Britain in a 2010 spy swap.

Britain earlier ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats after blaming Moscow for the attack – a charge fiercely denied by Moscow, which has pointed the finger at British intelligence.

Russia on Tuesday promised it would hit back.

“We’ll respond, have no doubt! No one wants to put up with such loutish behaviour and we won’t,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on the sidelines of a conference in Uzbekistan on Tuesday.

Lavrov said the coordinated response was the result of “colossal pressure, colossal blackmail” from the United States.

Washington led the way in a coordinated response after Britain’s calls for international action by ordering out 60 Russians in a new blow to US-Russia ties.

Australia, Canada, Ukraine and 17 European Union states matched the move with smaller-scale expulsions.

NATO has said it will unveil “measures” in response to the poisoning later on Tuesday.

‘Full Cold War’

The expulsions have revived fears of a return to the Cold War.

“These expulsions are particularly destructive for US-Russia relations,” foreign policy analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said.

“Relations between Russia and the West are entering a period of full Cold War,” he said.

But Western officials made it clear in announcing the expulsions that they share Britain’s assessment that only the Kremlin could have been behind the incident.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday said Washington and its allies were acting “in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom”.

‘No one is fooled any more’

In his article for The Times, Johnson said the attack fell into pattern of “reckless behaviour” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, including the annexation of Crimea.

“The common thread is Putin’s willingness to defy the essential rules on which the safety of every country depends,” he said.

“Hence every responsible nation shares a vital interest in standing firm against him,” he said.

Johnson also accused Russia of seeking to avoid pressure by putting out a variety of explanations for the attack – the first in Europe since the end of World War II.

“There was a time when this tactic of sowing doubt might have been effective, but no one is fooled any more. I believe yesterday was a moment when the cynicism of the propaganda machine was exposed for all to see,” he said.

US officials said that 48 “intelligence officers” attached to Russian diplomatic missions in the US would be expelled, along with 12 accredited to the United Nations in New York.

This represents the largest US expulsion of Russian or Soviet agents ever and comes after Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama expelled 35 in late 2016 over alleged election meddling.

Russia’s foreign ministry warned that the “unfriendly step by this group of countries will not pass without trace and we will respond to it”.

The Russian embassy in Washington asked its Twitter followers to vote on which US consulate should be closed, listing those in Vladivostok, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg as options.

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