A FURIOUS Russia has hit back at the expulsion of its diplomats across the globe, insisting the move is both confrontational and provocative.

Moscow vehemently denies it is behind the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury, a crime which Britain accused Moscow of committing.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Moscow could only be responsible for the attack which was carried out using the highly lethal, Russian-made nerve agent Novichok.

Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia are fighting for their lives in hospital.
Sergei Skripal and daughter Yulia are fighting for their lives in hospital.

The UK expelled 23 diplomats in response, with European allies and the United States soon following suit.

Australia today joined the chorus of condemnation with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announcing it was expelling two diplomats.

These countries are not alone, with Canada also ordering the expulsion of four Russian diplomats and denying credentials for three others.

WHY ARE COUNTRIES ANGRY?

In a speech to the House of Commons, Ms May announced that 18 of the UK's allies were taking action against Moscow.

"This is the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history," she said.

"Together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia's continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values."

More than 130 diplomats have been expelled from 23 countries as the furore surrounding the diplomatic scandal grows.

US President Donald Trump overnight expelled 60 Russian diplomats and ordered Russia's consulate in Seattle to close.

Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry slammed the "confrontational and provocative" move in a statement.

"Pulling out indiscriminate accusations against the Russian Federation in the absence of explanations of what happened and refusing to engage in substantive interaction, the British authorities de facto took a prejudiced, biased and hypocritical stance," the statement said.

Things aren’t so rosy at the moment between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. Picture: Jorge Silva/AFP
Things aren’t so rosy at the moment between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. Picture: Jorge Silva/AFP

WHAT HAPPENED?

Former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal came to Britain in 2010 as part of a spy swap.

Mr Skripal, 66, and his daughter, 33, were attacked on March 4 in what British authorities believe was a deliberately targeted incident.

The pair remain in a critical condition in hospital.

The nerve agent that poisoned them, Novichok or newcomer, is a military-grade substance developed by Russia.

DID RUSSIA DO IT?

Announcing Australia is joining the global action, Mr Turnbull said the decision reflected the shocking nature of the attack "the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area, endangering countless other members of the community".

British Prime Minister Theresa May this week expelled 23 Russian diplomats and severed high-level contacts over the poisoning.

The Kremlin has insisted that Moscow is innocent in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Picture: Mladen Antonov/AFP
The Kremlin has insisted that Moscow is innocent in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. Picture: Mladen Antonov/AFP

Russia expelled 23 diplomats in response.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson also accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering the poisoning.

The Russian chemist who helped develop the Soviet-era nerve agent used to poison Mr Skripal has insisted only Moscow could be behind the attack.

Vil Mirzayanov, 83, who now lives in the United States, told Reuters he had no doubt that Mr Putin was responsible, given Russia maintained tight control over its Novichok stockpile.

Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said there was no doubt Russia was behind the attack on Mr Skripal.

"Russia developed the Novichok Agent - there are several different types of Novichok - in the 1980s to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention," Dr Davis said.

"It was designed also to defeat NATO chemical sensor and protection systems - so troops would be killed or incapacitated even if they were wearing NBC suits and respirators."

Mr Skripal reportedly regretted being a double agent and wrote to Putin requesting permission to visit his family, his friend Vladimir Timoshkov told the BBC.

However the Kremlin has denied this took place.

The United States kicked out Russian diplomats and the Trump administration ordered Russia’s consulate in Seattle to close. Picture: Elaine Thompson/AP
The United States kicked out Russian diplomats and the Trump administration ordered Russia’s consulate in Seattle to close. Picture: Elaine Thompson/AP

WHAT NOW?

Dr Davis said he believed the Russians will respond by expelling additional staff from Western embassies including declared intelligence officers and some diplomats.

He said they may close some consulates to match the US move in Seattle and predicted the crisis could continue to escalate further.

"That escalation could involve imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions, and using the energy weapon reducing supplies of natural gas to Europe, and in particular to the UK," he said.

"Finally, Russia can increase the number of aggressive military operations along NATO's frontier - buzzing of NATO warships in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea, or probing NATO airspace with fighter and bomber flights."

Dr Davis said he believed the Russian response would focus mainly on the US and Europe.

He said most of those expelled in this wave only had diplomatic cover - they were in fact intelligence officials, either declared or undeclared.

"Those officials have to leave, which means the Russian's 'HUMINT' (human intelligence) network is undermined, and it's more difficult to put someone else in to replace the lost agent and run the network," he said.

"So both sides HUMINT, for example spies and informants, networks will be weakened, making it more difficult for both sides to gather intelligence on each other."

In a press conference this afternoon, Ms Bishop said she expected Russia to expel Australian diplomats in return.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the poisoning a shocking attack. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the poisoning a shocking attack. Picture: Lukas Coch/AAP

debra.killalea@news.com.au



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