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Spy Wars: Russian diplomats expelled from UK

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The UK has expelled 23 Russian diplomats. This comes as a reaction after Russia did not offer an explanation-pending a deadline for an attempted spy assassination that the United Kingdom holds Russia responsible for.

Former Russian double agent Sergie Skripal was found perched on a bench along with his daughter near a shopping mall in the British town of Salisbury last week. A doctor who happened to be one of the first people on the scene described Ms. Skripal’s condition as unconscious on a bench and vomiting after having lost control of her body. An investigation revealed that a nerve agent was used against them. 21 people in total are being treated while Mr. and Ms. Skripal are in critical condition in a hospital. The UK holds Russia responsible for the attack.

There have also been speculations that the UK might boycott the Football World Cup entirely but that won’t sit well with the public. The Foreign Office has also warned British citizens travelling to Russia of ‘anti-British sentiment’.

Skripal was convicted in Russia of treason. He had been passing information to the British Foreign Intelligence Agency, MI6. The identities of several Russian spies were revealed by Skripal to British authorities. Sergei Skripal came to UK in 2010 after a ‘spy swap’. 10 other Russian agents were exchanged for Mr. Skripal, some of them were under American captivity.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister of UK announced that Russia was being given a deadline to explain the attack, failing which the United Kingdom would take ‘much more extensive measures’ against Russia. “It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia”, Theresa May said. May also added, “Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”

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Nerve agents are chemicals that inhibit the functioning of the nervous system. The nerve agent Theresa May referred to is said to be of the Novichok series. Novichok is a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. It is the deadliest nerve agent known to man. It is highly potent in ultra-fine powder form and a small dose is enough to kill someone within a few minutes.

There have been a few high-profile nerve agent attacks in modern times. Recently, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader was exposed to the VX nerve in a bizarre encounter in Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia when two women rubbed the chemical on his face. In 1995, two five-man teams from a shadowy doomsday cult attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas and 13 people died.

Russia also has the option of expelling diplomats and restricting travel by Russian citizens to UK. The expulsion of diplomats will be seen by Russia as a justification for expelling British diplomats from its soil as well.

“This was not just an act of attempted murder in Salisbury – nor just an act against UK,” Theresa May said. “It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” The use of nerve agents is prohibited under the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Convention came into force in April, 1997 and aims to eliminate weapons of mass destruction by prohibiting the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by state parties.

The full text of the Convention provides details about the general obligations that states who are party to the convention agree to follow. In World War 1, the world witnessed the horrors of widespread use of chemical weapons on the battlefield and a serious effort was made to prohibit their use in the future. Once used, these weapons don’t discriminate between enemy combatants and civilians.

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192 countries are party to the Convention, including both Russia and UK. At the UN Security Council, Britain’s deputy ambassador at the UN, Jonathan Allen accused Russia of breaking its obligations under the Convention on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. US ambassador to the UN also said that the US stood in ‘absolute solidarity’ with the UK. The UK government has also asked an independent watchdog under the Convention to verify the use of Russian-made nerve agents.

Last week, the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov said that these accusations by the United Kingdom are merely anti-Russia propaganda. In response to British statements at the UNSC, the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said, ”We do not speak the language of ultimatums. We do not use that language with anyone. And we will not allow to be spoken to in that language either.” The Russian foreign minister has also said that Russia would cooperate under the terms and conditions of the Convention on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, according to which, there is a 10-day limit for a response.

Apart from expelling diplomats, the United Kingdom has taken a number of other steps in retaliation:

  • Increasing checks on private flights, customs and freight
  • Freezing Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
  • Ministers and the Royal Family boycotting the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year
  • Suspending all planned high-level bilateral contacts between the UK and Russia
  • Plans to consider new laws to increase defenses against “hostile state activity”
  • Declaring the Russian diplomats as ‘undeclared intelligence officers’

There have also been speculations that the UK might boycott the Football World Cup entirely but that won’t sit well with the public. The Foreign Office has also warned British citizens travelling to Russia of ‘anti-British sentiment’.

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Russia also has the option of expelling diplomats and restricting travel by Russian citizens to UK. The expulsion of diplomats will be seen by Russia as a justification for expelling British diplomats from its soil as well. Relations will probably spiral down further if that happens.

There is the option of imposing economic sanctions on Russia but the UK is the 16th largest trading partner of Russia. For sanctions to seriously affect Russian economy, Theresa May would have to convince members of EU countries to stop trading with Russia. After Brexit, the United Kingdom has much less sway over EU member nations. Hence, for lack of practicality, this option won’t be pursued by the United Kingdom. Cooperation under the terms and conditions set out by the Convention on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is a better option.

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