28 Mar 2018

Australia expelling two Russian diplomats

6:14 pm on 28 March 2018

The Australian Federal Government is expelling two Russian spies from Australia within a week, in solidarity with the United Kingdom over a nerve agent attack earlier this month.

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal at a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in 2006.

Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal at a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in 2006. Photo: AFP

The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister released a joint statement this morning confirming two diplomats had been identified as undeclared intelligence officers and would be "directed to depart Australia within seven days".

Australia's actions mirror the response taken by the United States and more than a dozen European nations in response to the attempted murder of a Russian double agent in Salisbury, England.

"This decision reflects 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," the statement said.

Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull briefed Labor leader Bill Shorten about the expulsions this morning.

Mr Shorten said he was very supportive of the decision to remove the Russian diplomats.

Russia's Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement earlier today strongly protesting against the decision by other nations to expel diplomats, calling it unfriendly, confrontational and provocative.

"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.

Governments expel diplomats under the Geneva convention on diplomatic relations.

It states that a country can ask the representatives of another nation to leave at any time and without explanation.

In April 1983, Bob Hawke's Labor government expelled the First Secretary, Valery Ivanov, from what was then the Soviet embassy over spying.

More recently, in 2012, Australia expelled all Syrian diplomats in response to atrocities in Syria.

That expulsion occurred in a similar co-ordinated way to the current Russian situation.

Australia's then foreign minister Bob Carr's announcement in May 2012 mirrored actions by the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who all ordered out the highest-ranking Syrian diplomats in their countries.

Russia's top Australian diplomat spoke to the ABC last week about the fallout from the nerve gas attack, and said any sanctions against Russia would result in a worse situation for Australia.

Ambassador Grigory Logvinov said once Russia retaliated with its own measures, Australia would be worse off.

"Australia's not the biggest Russian trading partner," he said.

Earlier this morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand does not have the kind of Russian diplomat that is being expelled by other countries, but says New Zealand would also kick them out of the country if it did.