Britain will expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve toxin attack on a Russian ex-spy in southern England, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday, describing the attack as an unlawful use of force by Russia against the United Kingdom.
May said Britain would also introduce new measures to strengthen defenses against hostile state activities, freeze Russian state assets wherever there was evidence of a threat and downgrade its attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.
Russia, which denies any involvement in the attack, called the measures announced by May “unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted” and warned Britain to expect retaliation.
Unlike when the United States and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine, May did not name Russian individuals or companies that would be specifically targeted by sanctions.
Former double agent Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the genteel city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in hospital in a critical condition. A police officer was also harmed and remains in a serious condition.
Skripal betrayed dozens of Russian agents to Britain before being arrested in Moscow and later jailed in 2006. He was freed under a spy swap deal in 2010 and took refuge in Britain.
May has said the Skripals were attacked with Novichok, a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent. She had asked Moscow to explain whether it was responsible for the attack or had lost control of stocks of the highly dangerous substance.
“Their response demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May said in a statement to parliament.
“They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.
“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, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”