Nicola Sturgeon backs Theresa May as Russian diplomats expelled

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Nicola Sturgeon has won praise for the SNP after backing Theresa May’s tough response towards Russia over the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

The First Minister insisted that “Russia’s actions cannot be tolerated”, in stark contrast to the response from Jeremy Corbyn, who was jeered and accused of “appeasement” for refusing to accept Russia’s responsibility.

Britain is braced for retaliation from Russia after the Prime Minister said she was expelling 23 spies from the UK, declaring that Moscow was “culpable” for a chemical weapons attack on UK soil.

Mrs May announced the biggest such mass expulsion since the Cold War and suspended high-level contact with Russia over the poisoning of a double agent in Salisbury with a deadly nerve agent. Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence operatives have been given a week to leave the UK, and no Royals or ministers will attend the football World Cup in Russia this summer.

The Russian government ignored a UK ultimatum to explain by midnight on Tuesday its involvement in the poisoning of Russian double agent ­Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4 March. Both victims and a police officer who came to their aid remain in a serious condition in hospital.

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Mrs May told MPs that the government would take immediate action to “dismantle the Russian espionage ­network in the UK” and impose new sanctions on foreign agents who pose a threat to Britain.

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture:  John Linton/PA Wire

Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: John Linton/PA Wire

The move is expected to provoke a tit-for-tat response from Moscow, with a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman condemning the UK as “fully-fledged liars” and promising “fitting … symmetrical measures that are completely appropriate for the situation”.

Last night the UN Security Council was set to meet in an effort to agree an international response to the UK’s accusation that Russia committed an “unlawful use of force” – although Russia’s veto is 
likely to block any significant action.

Speaking after face-to-face Downing Street talks with the Prime Minister on Brexit, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish and UK governments were “united in our condemnation of Russia’s actions”.

“I expressed my support for the initial steps that the Prime Minister has outlined in the Commons this afternoon,” she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

“As legislation is brought forward, we will scrutinise that carefully, but it’s very clear that Russia cannot be permitted to unlawfully attempt to kill on the streets of the UK with impunity.”

Responding to the Prime Minister’s Commons statement, the SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, said “there has to be a robust response to the use of terror on our streets”.

But there was anger at the Labour leader, who called for multilateral action in response and said it was a matter of “huge regret” that the UK’s diplomatic network had been cut by 25 per cent in the past five years.

Conservative MPs shouted “shame” throughout Mr Corbyn’s statement, and gestured at the Labour leader as Mr Blackford offered the government the SNP’s support.

The Prime Minister was told by Labour MP John Woodcock that a “clear majority” on the Opposition benches backed her stance on Russia, not their leader’s.

Mr Corbyn’s spokesman was later condemned by the Prime Minister after he questioned the reliability of information from Britain’s spy agencies.

Seumas Milne indicated that the Labour leadership does not yet believe there is enough evidence to blame Russia, and suggested the “problematic” history of the intelligence services left open the possibility of Moscow being framed.

Mr May condemned the comments as “shocking” and “outrageous” after a Conservative MP raised them in the Commons chamber.

Addressing MPs, the Prime Minister said: “It was right to offer Russia the opportunity to provide an explanation, but their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.

“They have provided no ­credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent. 

“No explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom; no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. Instead they have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”The Prime Minister added: “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter - and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey. 

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.”

In addition to the expulsions and the suspension of high-level bilateral contact, Mrs May said new measures will extend powers to stop foreign agents at the border who deemed to be a risk to the UK. Existing powers only apply to terrorist suspects.

The Prime Minister signalled that the government will accept calls for the UK to adopt measures contained in the US Magnitsky Act, which will create new powers to crack down on the travel and assets of Russians accused of human rights abuses.Setting out her efforts to build international support for the UK’s stance, Mrs May told MPs: “In the last twenty-four hours I have spoken to President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron. 
“We have agreed to co-operate closely in responding to this barbaric act and to co-ordinate our efforts to stand up for the rules based international order which Russia seeks to undermine. 
“I will also speak to other allies and partners in the coming days, and I welcome the strong expressions of support from NATO and from partners across the European Union and beyond.”

The Prime Minister said the UK had notified the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons about the use of the nerve agent, and that officials were “working with the police to enable the OPCW to independently verify our analysis.”

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