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.
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.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
ONE WEEK TO LEAVE BRITAIN
May said the expulsion of the 23 diplomats, identified as undeclared intelligence officers, was the biggest single expulsion for over 30 years and would degrade Russian intelligence capabilities in Britain for years to come.
The expelled Russian diplomats have one week to leave Britain, May said, before listing other measures.
“We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents,” she said.
She also said new legislative proposals would be urgently developed to counter any threat from a hostile state.
“This will include the addition of a targeted power to detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the UK border,” May said.
British authorities would make use of existing powers to enhance efforts to monitor and track the intentions of those traveling to the UK who could be engaged in activities that represented a security threat.
“We will increase checks on private flights, customs and freight,” she said.
She also threatened action against those she described as “serious criminals and corrupt elites,” adding: “There is no place for these people, or their money, in our country.”
May said Britain would revoke an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit the country and suspend all planned high level bilateral contacts between London and Moscow.