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In Retaliation To U.K.'s Move, Russia Will Expel British Diplomats

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, Russia's foreign minister said the Kremlin will be expelling British diplomats from the country. This is in retaliation for yesterday's mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the U.K. The British decision to kick 23 Russians out came after the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil. In the House of Commons yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May laid the blame for that attack squarely on Moscow.

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PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.

GREENE: Now we should say, Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning. For more on this, we're joined by Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to our program.

KIM DARROCH: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on to chat. It sounds like Russia is now going to expel British diplomats. This is becoming quite a back-and-forth. How far is this going to escalate?

DARROCH: Well, we will see how Russia responds. I've seen the news as you have. The appropriate response, we think, from Russia would be to become a more responsible and reliable member of the international community. What they did was completely appalling and unacceptable. This kind of activity can't be tolerated. We thought that the appropriate and measured response was the expulsion that the prime minister announced yesterday along with a freeze on high-level contacts.

There will be no senior British representation at the World Cup this summer, no members of the royal family, no senior ministers. And as I say, this is part of a pattern of bad behavior by Russia, whether you look at this poisoning of two innocent civilians on the streets of a British town or Russian activity in Syria or Russian activity in Ukraine. So they need to change their ways.

GREENE: Well, speaking of changing their ways, I want to bring in another voice briefly, if you don't mind. It's Bill Browder. We spoke to him this morning. He's been a leading voice on targeted sanctions, getting tougher on Russia after his lawyer died in suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison. He said Britain needs to focus on the extensive Russian assets in your country. Let's listen here.

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BILL BROWDER: Russian gangsters and corrupt government officials all buy expensive properties in London. And that is the one huge leverage that Britain has that's asymmetric. It's not like a bunch of British officials have properties in Moscow that can be seized.

GREENE: Is your government prepared to go that far, to seize the properties of Russian - the Russian wealthy people who live in London? And there are a good number of them.

DARROCH: The prime minister said yesterday in the House of Commons that we would look at all ways in which we might strengthen our defenses against hostile state activity. So I don't want to speculate about how that will go or what particular measures we will bring forward. London's always been an international city. We've always welcomed people to live there from all over the world, but that's within British laws. And as long as people do that, then they are welcome. If they don't, we will pursue them and take whatever action is necessary.

GREENE: The anti-corruption group Transparency International said last year that U.K. properties worth $1.3 billion had been purchased with what it described as suspicious wealth from Russia. Do you feel like British law has done enough to identify where there is suspicious or questionable people from Russia who own properties in London and elsewhere?

DARROCH: I think we've recently strengthened our legislation and powers in this area. But, of course, you have to be - you always have to be vigilant. And if there are more things that we can do, then we will do that. But, you know, the law is as it is. It's been strengthened, as I say, recently. And we think it's sufficient to pursue people who are doing the kinds of things you describe.

GREENE: May I ask about one other big story, the departure of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the top U.S. diplomat? Do I understand correctly that European diplomats were in the middle of talks with Tillerson about what's next with the Iran nuclear deal when President Trump fired him? And does that worry you?

DARROCH: The foreign secretary talked regularly to Rex Tillerson. They had a very good relationship. At official levels - senior official level, yes, we have been talking to U.S. officials about how to respond to what the president has said about his misgivings about the Iran deal, and that process will continue. The foreign secretary knows Mike Pompeo. They met when the foreign secretary was last in Washington. They'll have a very good relationship, I'm sure.

GREENE: OK. Pompeo, you mentioned, who the president has designated to be the next secretary of state we should say. We've been speaking to Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States in Washington this morning. Ambassador, always good to talk to you. Thanks a lot.

DARROCH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.