Russia expels more British diplomats over spy poisoning row

Russia has announced a further round of expulsions of British diplomats, escalating the fallout over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

Britain has pointed the finger firmly at the Kremlin for the Salisbury attack and expelled 23 Russian diplomats, a move swiftly followed in kind by Russia, which also closed down the British Council, the cultural arm of the British government.

The Russians have now ordered Britain to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to the same level as Russian diplomatic missions in the UK. It comes after irritation in Moscow that Britain has persuaded so many other countries to expel Russians.

Russian officials have been taken aback by the level of coordination in the expulsions, and the number of countries willing to go along with Britain. The US expelled 60 Russian diplomats and Ukraine 13, while many other countries expelled smaller numbers.

In total, more than 150 Russian diplomats, many of whom are believed to be intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover, have been expelled from two dozen countries.

On Thursday, Russia made symmetrical responses to all the countries that expelled its diplomats, and now Britain has been given 30 days to reduce the number of stationed in Russia.

Russia’s foreign ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, on Friday morning in light of the “provocative and unsubstantiated actions by Britain, which instigated the expulsion of Russian diplomats from various nations for no reason”.

“It’s regrettable but in light of Russia’s previous behaviour, we anticipated a response,” said a spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office (FCO). “However, this doesn’t change the facts of the matter. The attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable.”

It was not immediately clear how many people work at Russia’s UK missions and therefore how many British diplomats in Russia will need to be shed.

The Russian embassy in London said via a Twitter direct message that “the British side is aware of the figures in question” but declined to give a number, while a spokesperson for the embassy in Moscow said it was too early to say, and that the FCO did not give figures for employees at its missions due to security reasons.

Russia has vehemently denied being behind the attack on Skripal, who was sent to Britain during a 2010 spy swap. Scientists have determined the Skripals were poisoned using novichok, a nerve agent produced in the Soviet Union.

The preferred narrative in Russia is that Britain orchestrated the attack as a “false flag” operation to cast blame on Russia. Andrei Bezrukov, formerly a deep cover Russian spy in the US, said on state television this week that the poisoning was a diversionary tactic organised by the Tory government to save Theresa May.

The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, has suggested the same, posting on Facebook a clip from the 1980s comedy Yes Prime Minister, in which the characters consider expelling Russian diplomats to distract attention from a scandal at home.

Zakharova has said the response to the Salisbury incident has been “a huge manipulation of public opinion with the participation of the British authorities”, while Russian officials have accused the UK of hiding evidence.

On Thursday, reports emerged that Yulia Skripal, 33, is conscious and talking, having apparently made a surprising recovery from what was considered a grave condition. Her father’s condition is described as critical but stable.

Investigators continue a massive operation to determine how the poisoning took place, with the latest reports suggesting the poison was most likely placed on the front door handle at Skripal’s house.

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