Expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from U.K. a 'provocation,' Russia says

Britain will expel nearly two dozen Russian diplomats, sever high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow and take both open and covert action against Kremlin meddling after the poisoning of a former spy.

British Prime Minister Theresa May says Russia is guilty of attempted murder of ex-spy

British Prime Minister Theresa May had given Russia a deadline of midnight Tuesday night to explain how an ex-spy was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent, and after Moscow ignored the ultimatum, she announced her government's response Wednesday. (Parliament TV via Reuters)

Britain will expel nearly two dozen Russian diplomats, sever high-level bilateral contacts with Moscow and take both open and covert action against Kremlin meddling after the poisoning of a former spy, the prime minister said Wednesday, plunging U.K.-Russian relations into their deepest freeze since the Cold War.

Theresa May told British lawmakers that 23 Russian diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers have a week to leave the country.

May spoke after Moscow ignored a midnight deadline to explain how a nerve agent developed during the Soviet Union era 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 on March 4.

May said Russia had provided no explanation, and "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 cancelled, and May said British ministers and royals won't attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.

Police cordoned off the upper level of a Sainsbury's supermarket parking lot, opposite the park bench where Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on March 4. The two remain critically ill after being exposed to a nerve agent believed to be from the so-called Novichok group. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

May also said Britain would clamp down on murky Russian money and strengthen its powers to impose sanctions on abusers of human rights — though she gave few details.

"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 possible legal powers against criminals and corrupt elites.

"There is no place for these people — or their money — in our country," she said.

Russia calls expulsions a 'provocation'

May vowed to use law-enforcement and intelligence powers to disrupt Russian spying and "threats of hostile state activity." She 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."

"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.

Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko said Britain's actions were "a provocation."

Some Russia experts said the measures announced by May were unlikely to make Russian President Vladimir Putin's government change its behaviour. She didn't expel Russia's ambassador or announce sanctions against any individuals.

Critics of the British government have long claimed that the United Kingdom is reluctant to act against Russia because London's property market and financial sector are magnets for billions in Russian money.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has insisted that Moscow is 'not to blame' for the poisoning of former Russian spy-turned-British informant Sergei Skripal and his daughter. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters )

"There does not seem to be any real appetite so far to investigate the ill-gotten gains of the Russian elite that have been laundered through London," said John Lough, an associate fellow in the Eurasia program at the Chatham House think-tank.

"It is not clear to me that London's response will hit the Kremlin where it hurts."

Russia points fingers elsewhere

Moscow refused to comply with Britain's demands that it explain how Novichok — a form of nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War — came to be used in Britain. Russia said the U.K. must first provide samples of the poison collected by investigators.

Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Britain has offered "baseless accusations which aren't backed up by any evidence."

Some in Russia have suggested that the nerve agent could have come from another former Soviet country.

Lawmaker Vladimir Gutenev, a member of Russia's state commission for chemical disarmament, said Russia had scrapped its stockpile of Novichok.

"It is hard to say what may be happening in neighbouring countries," he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Britain has sought support from allies in the European Union and NATO, including the United States, in response to the use of an illegal chemical weapon on British soil. May's office said U.S. President Donald Trump told the prime minister the U.S. was "with the U.K. all the way."

On Wednesday, it also called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the investigation.

Russian involvement 'likely,' says Trudeau

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Wednesday the chemical attack must be "condemned in the strongest terms."

"The attack is despicable and unacceptable that there be chemical weapons used against citizens of the United Kingdom," Trudeau said Wednesday in Regina.

"Russia's likely involvement in this is also absolutely unacceptable and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms."

Trudeau said he spoke with May to offer Canada's support.

"Canada stands with its friend and ally the United Kingdom on this," he said.

Theresa May announced the sanctions against Russia after Moscow ignored a deadline to explain how a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union was used to target a former spy in England. 9:58

Also on Wednesday, the White House said the U.S. "stands in solidarity" with the U.K.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. "shares the United Kingdom's assessment that Russia is responsible" for the attack.

The White House is not announcing any actions in response to what it is calling an "abhorrent attack."

Sanders said the poisoning of Skripal fits into a pattern of Russia disregarding international law, undermining the sovereignty of other countries, and trying to "subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes."

European Council President Donald Tusk said Wednesday that the attack was "most likely" inspired by Moscow and announced he would put the issue on the agenda at an EU leaders' summit next week.

May said Russia's use of a chemical weapon was "an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. And it is an affront to the rules-based system on which we and our international partners depend."

"We will work with our allies and partners to confront such actions wherever they threaten our security, at home and abroad," she said.

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