MOSCOW – Moscow will expel British diplomats in retaliation for a similar move made by London earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday, without specifying how many or any other retaliatory measures in the deepening crisis between the two countries.
Asked by a journalist at a press conference if Russia would kick out British diplomats, Lavrov said simply “of course, we will.”
The confirmation comes as part of a delayed and still unfolding response to a variety of coordinated Western measures against Moscow following the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain last week. The spy, 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent identified by British authorities as one made only by Russia.
Russia has been coy about its potential responses since Wednesday, when British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in London believed to be part of Russia’s intelligence network there. There has been much talk in Moscow of imminent and decisive responses, but so far nothing of substance has taken place.
Alexander Gabuev, a Russian foreign policy analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that the delay in more concrete announcements is likely related to Sunday’s presidential election. “They’re either saving the response for closer to the big day, or want to minimize negative news until after the election.” And because May delivered the British response, Putin will want to deliver Russia’s.
“Also, simply expelling 23 British diplomats probably won’t be enough,” Gabuev said. “There are other elements to Britain’s reaction and you need to give a ‘mirror’ response to that as well.”
The government has also been vague about its response to Washington’s expansion of sanctions announced Thursday against Russian individuals believed to have played a role in alleged cyber attacks and attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday Moscow’s would expand its own “black list” of Americans, adding that additional measures had not yet been ruled out. “Those [American] politicians are playing with fire,” he said.
Russia instead has focused its efforts on a campaign of denial and counterclaim which has at times seen officials contradicting each other.
On Thursday, Ryabkov claimed Russia had never developed anything like the alleged nerve agent, identified by the British as Novichok. Shortly after, a lawmaker claimed the United States stole samples while helping to decommission the facility where it was made in the 1990s. Most statements have fallen somewhere in between the two extremes.
Lavrov on Friday continued to deny and deflect blame, claiming again that British allegations of Russian involvement in Skripal’s poisoning were groundless and anti-Russian. He wished the Skripals a speedy recovery and said he hopes they can shed light on what happened when they are well.
Lavrov also lashed out at Britain for not providing consular access to Yulia.
The Skripals were found slumped over on a park bench in the cathedral town of Salisbury near the famed ruin of Stonehenge. An officer who attempted to revive them remains in the hospital. Several areas in the town are also still cordoned off as police continue their investigation.
Writing in the Guardian on Friday, the leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn called for “calm heads” and warned against rushing into a “new cold war.”
Undeterred by the criticism from across the country and even within his own party, Corbyn didn’t endorse the British government’s claim that there was “no alternative conclusion” other than that the Russian state was culpable. He suggested that the possibility that the Russians had lost control of the dangerous nerve agent could not be excluded.
He also referenced the “flawed intelligence and dodgy dossiers” in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “In my years in parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times,” he wrote.
The United States, France and Germany on Thursday formally backed Britain’s claims that Russia likely was responsible for the attack, calling it the “first offensive use of a nerve agent” in Europe since World War II.
In a statement, the four leaders said they shared the view of British investigators that “there is no plausible alternative explanation” for the attack. They added that “Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the U.K. government further underlines its responsibility.”
“It threatens the security of us all,” they added, without spelling out any possible further reprisals.