Russia to expel 23 British diplomats in spy poisoning standoff

LONDON — Russia is to expel 23 British diplomats in retaliation for the 23 Russian envoys expelled from the U.K. earlier this week as tensions between the two countries continue to escalate after a nerve weapon was used in the attempted assassination of a former double agent on U.K. soil.

Russia said it would also withdraw permission for Britain to open a general consulate in St Petersburg and would close the British Council, an international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities, in Russia.

The announcement comes three days after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to kick out 23 Russian diplomats allegedly operating as undeclared intelligence officers in Britain. The expulsions — the largest in three decades — “will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capabilities in the U.K. for years to come,” May said.

Russian sanctions against Britain are the latest development in a standoff between the two countries over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury last week, which has seen diplomatic relations reach a post-Cold War low.

The British Ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry Saturday where he was informed of the retaliatory measures.

In a statement the Foreign Ministry said the expulsions were in response to “the provocative actions of the British side and the unsubstantiated accusations against the Russian Federation in connection with the incident in Salisbury.”

The ministry warned that it reserves the right to take other measures against Britain in the event of further hostile steps from London.

As he left the Russian Foreign Ministry Saturday Bristow told reporters that the attack in Salisbury was not only an attack on the U.K. but on “the international world’s base system on which all countries including Russia depend for their safety and security.”

The ambassador said that Britain had given Russian the opportunity to explain how a chemical weapon developed in Russia was used in Salisbury and declare the material to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but that Russia had done neither.

“This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack on the United Kingdom,” he said. “We will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and our values against an attack of this sort,” he added.

Addressing the U.K. parliament on Wednesday, May laid the blame for the attempted murders squarely at Russia’s door.

Image: Counter-terror Police Image: Counter-terror Police

Specialist officers in protective suits secure the police forensic tent that had been blown over by the wind and is covering the bench where Sergei Skripal was found critically ill, March 7, 2018. Matt Cardy / Getty Images

“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,” she said.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Friday that it was overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had made the decision to use the nerve toxin on U.K. soil.

“We have nothing against the Russians themselves. There is to be no Russophobia as a result of what is happening,” Johnson told reporters at the Battle of Britain bunker from which World War Two fighter operations were controlled.

“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision – and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision – to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe for the first time since the Second World War,” he said.

Russia has denied any involvement and said it was not responding to May’s ultimatum until it received samples of the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, which British investigators say was used in the attack.

The Russian Embassy in London said the expulsion of diplomats was “totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted.”

“All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-U.K. relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain,” it said in a statement earlier this week.

The expulsions came a day after British police launched a murder investigation after an autopsy revealed that a Russian exile who was critical of Putin was strangled in his home.

Nikolay Glushkov, whose body was found Monday, died as a result of “compression to the neck,” London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement.