Britain boots 23 Russian diplomats over spy poisoning
London – Relations between Britain and Russia plunged Wednesday to a chilly level not seen since the Cold War as Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 diplomats, severed high-level contacts and vowed both open and covert action against Kremlin meddling after the poisoning of a former spy.
Russia said it would respond soon to what it called Britain’s “crude” and “hostile” actions.
While May pledged to disrupt Russian espionage and “hostile state activity,” she gave few details about how hard Britain would hit Russian politicians and oligarchs where it really hurts – in their wallets.
“Expelling diplomats is a kind of a standard response,” said Natasha Kuhrt, a Russia expert at King’s College London. “I’m not sure it’s going to make Moscow stand up and think.”
May told the House of Commons that 23 Russians diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers have a week to leave Britain.
“This will be the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years,” May said, adding that it would “fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the U.K. for years to come.”
May spoke after Moscow ignored a midnight deadline to explain how the nerve agent Novichok, developed by the Soviet Union, was used against Sergei Skripal, an ex-Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter Yulia. They remain in critical condition in a hospital in Salisbury, southwestern England, after being found unconscious March 4.
May said “there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter.”
She announced a range of economic and diplomatic measures, including the suspension of high-level contacts with Russia. An invitation for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Britain has been canceled, and British ministers and royals won’t attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.
May also said Britain would clamp down on murky Russian money and strengthen its powers to impose sanctions on abusers of human rights.
“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents,” May said, promising to use all legal powers against criminals and corrupt elites, and to “increase checks on private flights, customs and freight.”
“There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country,” she said.
May said some of the measures “cannot be shared publicly for reasons of national security.”
The Russian Embassy in London said the expulsion of diplomats was “totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted.” Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko called Britain’s actions were “a provocation.”
Russia did not immediately announce retaliatory measures, but its Foreign Ministry said “our response will not be long in coming.”
It said Britain’s “hostile measures” were “an unprecedentedly crude provocation.”