UK to ask EU leaders to expel Russian spies from own countries
Britain will encourage European leaders to expel Russian intelligence agents from their own countries in a bid to dismantle the Kremlin’s networks across Europe, warning that the west faces a long-term threat from Vladimir Putin.
Theresa May will ask European leaders to examine Britain’s response to the use of a nerve agent against a Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury and step up their own measures when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.
The prime minister will brief leaders over dinner at the European council summit, where she will stress a pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour. “The challenge of Russia is one that will endure for years to come,” she will say. “As a European democracy, the UK will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and Nato to face these threats together. United, we will succeed.”
It is understood conversations over the coming weeks will include the UK making the case that countries should take similar action to expel Russian diplomats believed to be undisclosed intelligence agents, after the UK expelled 23 this week. Downing Street believes the expulsions have now severely limited Russia’s intelligence capacity and is understood to be considering further expulsions if further undisclosed intelligence agents are discovered.
A senior Whitehall official said that Russia “has shown itself to be a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner”, pointing to a pattern of behaviour including cyber-attacks on countries including Germany, the US and Denmark and aggression in Syria and Ukraine.
However, emphasis is being placed by the official on curbing the Kremlin’s capacity to do harm, rather than escalating conflict. “It’s not that we are looking for some big confrontation with Russia, or that this is about ultimately regime change,” the official said.
In her remarks to EU leaders, May will stress the reckless nature of the attack in Salisbury against Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who remain seriously ill in hospital, and that the use of the Novichok nerve agent was a clear breach of the chemical weapons convention.
British officials have briefed allies about the precise composition of the nerve agent from the Novichok group for their own experts to assess.
“Disrespect for international rules and norms clearly threatens the basis for our advanced democracy, open society and free economies,” a senior No 10 official said. “The Russian threat does not respect borders and as such we are all at risk.”
Downing Street is not expecting a detailed list of actions member states will sign up to after the prime minister meets EU leaders. “This is a gradual process, it will take some time, it is a long-term challenge,” the No 10 official said. “Tomorrow is part of the process.”
Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have begun working at the scene of the nerve agent attack on the Skripals, although they will be unlikely to report for at least a fortnight.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Office released a social media video attacking Russia’s response to the chemical weapons attack, listing 17 separate explanations proposed by its state media or state spokespeople – including blaming the Skripals’ condition on an attempted suicide or accidental overdoses and pointing the finger at five other countries, including Ukraine and Sweden. Other theories have blamed Yulia Skripal’s future mother-in-law, or called the attack a false flag.
The meeting in Brussels is the latest phase of a diplomacy blitz by May and senior ministers to persuade states to back Britain’s judgment that the Russian state is responsible, prompting statements of support from 35 countries.
A unified response from European leaders may not be forthcoming, with Greece in particular appearing to be resistant to comprehensively assigning blame to the Russian state.
A statement from EU foreign ministers earlier this week did not go as far as a joint US, France and Germany statement last week, which said there were “no plausible alternatives” to Russia’s culpability but instead said the EU “takes extremely seriously” Britain’s claims that Russia was responsible.
British officials are understood to have been in close contact with the Greek government, setting out their case in the run-up to the summit.