Britain to expel 23 Russian diplomats over nerve agent attack
The UK announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday in response to the nerve agent attack on a Russian former double agent.
Theresa May, the prime minister, said that Russia had responded with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance” following her demand for an explanation about the use of the military grade substance in Salisbury, a small city in southern England.
The order for the diplomats to leave the country within a week was the largest expulsion since 1985 when 31 were ordered out following the defection of double agent Oleg Gordievsky to the UK.
Analysts said the expulsions would represent about 40 per cent of Russian diplomatic strength in Britain. The largest diplomatic tit-for-tat was in 1971 when 105 diplomats from the former Soviet Union were expelled by the British government.
Just four were expelled after Russian agents poisoned the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive material in London, leading to his death three weeks later in 2006.
“Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come,” Mrs May told lawmakers. “And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”
Mrs May also announced that high level contacts between the two countries would be stopped, including a planned visit to the UK by the Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. She said that dignitaries and members of the Royal family would not be attending the World Cup in Russia this summer but did not mention a full boycott of the tournament.
She also stopped short of expelling Russia’s ambassador and did not directly mention RT, the Kremlin-backed television station, which operates in the UK. The network’s future will be reviewed separately by broadcast regulators.
Experts have identified the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, as Novichok, a military grade material linked to Russia.
The pair were found unconscious on a bench in a shopping centre in Salisbury on Sunday and remain critically ill in hospital. One of the first police officers on the scene is also seriously ill but has been speaking with his family.
Mrs May said that Russia had “demonstrated complete disdain” in its response to UK demands for information and had given no credible reason for how the country lost control of the nerve agent that was developed during the Soviet era.