Britain Expels 23 Russian Diplomats Over Ex-Spy's Poisoning
LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats on Wednesday, blaming Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and sharply escalating the dispute between the two countries.
Her statement to Parliament came after Moscow rejected a British deadline for Russia to explain itself over this month’s nerve-agent attack on the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter. The two countries have engaged in an worsening clash in recent days, with Britain widening an investigation into the incident and courting friends and allies to increase pressure on Russia, while Moscow has threatened to retaliate over any punitive action.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” Mrs. May said in an address to the House of Commons. “It must therefore be met with a full and robust response.”
She said she had agreed with Britain’s National Security Council to suspend all high-level contacts between her country and Russia, and to expel 23 Russian diplomats, who were given one week to leave. She described it as the biggest expulsion in more than 30 years.
The prime minister also said the government had agreed on new powers to crack down on the activities of foreign intelligence agents in Britain, that there was no place for “serious criminals and corrupt elites” in the country, and that an invitation for Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov of Russia to visit had been withdrawn.
She added that no British ministers or royals would attend the World Cup in Russia this summer, that Britain would “increase checks on private flights, customs and freight,” and that it would “freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nations or residents.”
“They have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” Mrs. May said of Russia. “Their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events. They have provided no credible explanation.”
Experts have described a number of tougher measures Britain could also take, like investigating and seizing the ill-gotten wealth of Russians who have invested and settled in the country, changing laws that made it possible to hide the true ownership of assets, and calling on the international community to tighten economic restrictions on Russia. Britain’s broadcast regulator has hinted that it could revoke the license of RT, the Kremlin-controlled English-language news channel.
Since Monday, when Mrs. May said that “it is highly likely that Russia was responsible” for the nerve-agent attack on Mr. Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, this month, President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has made a series of statements denying any involvement and threatening dire consequences for Britain if it acts against Russia.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Wednesday that Britain was “acting out political drama” rather than investigating the matter seriously.
“Russia could not have had any motives” for the attack, he said, “but those who would like to continue a Russophobic campaign in absolutely all areas of human activities” could have had such motives.
Moscow has demanded that it be part of a joint investigation into the attack on the Skripals, along with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and that Britain turn over a sample of the nerve agent. Mrs. May identified the chemical as a Novichok, a class of extremely deadly nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.
Britain was sending samples of the toxin to the chemical weapons organization for verification, according to a British official who was briefed on the matter, and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The country has tried to marshal support from international organizations, an effort potentially complicated by Britain’s impending exit from the European Union, disputes within NATO, and the reluctance of President Trump to denounce Mr. Putin. Despite those tensions, several of Britain’s European allies have been quick to express solidarity over the attack on the Skripals, who remain hospitalized in critical condition.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that he stood with Mrs. May on what he called a “brutal attack inspired, most likely, by Moscow,” and said he was prepared to put the matter on the agenda for the council’s meeting next week.
Also on Wednesday, Britain called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the attack, and delivered a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, decrying Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, the country’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, and civil rights abuses within Russia, as well as the nerve agent attack.
“Russia, as it so often does, will either deny the facts of what we have said today, or will seek to deflect criticism away from itself,” the statement said.
Britain also sought support from the chemical weapons organization and the United Nations Conference on Disarmament.
Mr. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was imprisoned in 2006 for selling secrets to the British. In 2010, he was sent to Britain as part of a spy swap.
The use of an exotic poison in an attempt on his life has echoes of the assassination in 2006 of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent and vocal critic of Mr. Putin, who was poisoned in London with a radioactive isotope. A British investigation concluded that the killing was not only carried out by Russian agents, but was probably approved by Mr. Putin.
The attack on the Skripals has prompted the British government to say that it will re-examine other suspicious deaths of Putin foes in Britain, which critics say the government has not pursued seriously enough.
Mrs. May’s remarks came as the investigation into the attack in Salisbury continued to widen, with the police cordoning off more sites that might have been contaminated, and anxiety in that city remained high. Hundreds of people who might have been exposed have been told to thoroughly wash their clothes, phones, glasses and anything else that might be carrying minute traces of the chemical.
“We are trying to carry on as normal, but it’s hard when the police keep tarping up new parts of the city,” said Adrian Mendes, an employee of a local fish-and-chip shop. “It makes you think, what else could be contaminated? It makes you want to stay away.”
Tuesday was a market day in the city’s picturesque central square, but even with the sun shining, stalls that would usually be bustling stood empty.
“I’ve never seen it this quiet,” said Fiona Dawson, who works at a jewelry stall. “All you hear now is the military helicopters hovering above.”
Several residents claimed that swans and ducks that passed police cordons on the Avon River had been put down to prevent the spread of contamination. The police did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.
Local merchants were visibly worried about the long-term impact on business after Neil Basu, chief of the counterterrorism police, announced on Tuesday that the investigation could take many weeks.
Some shops put up signs trying to reassure people. “Business is open,” read one. “Nerve-agent-free products,” read another, on an open vegetable stand, which was later taken down after other stall owners complained that it was putting customers off.
Molly Huntingford, a 16-year-old student, said she has been in a state of anxiety since learning that she had been in the same restaurant as the Skripals on the day of the incident. Her fear worsened after officials released the name of the nerve agent.
“My mum googled it and we both completely freaked out and went straight to the hospital,” she said, where doctors assured her that she would be fine.
Her mother, Suzanne Huntingford, and others in Salisbury said they feared that the authorities were withholding information.
“Lots of precautions are being taken behind closed curtains,” she said. “We’re living on a crime scene and every day there is a new surprise.”
On Tuesday, the police said that counterterrorism investigators were looking into the unexplained death of Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian exile found dead at his home in London, who was close to Boris Berezovsky, once a leading Putin opponent. Mr. Berezovsky’s death in England in 2013, an apparent suicide by hanging, is one of those that critics have insisted should be investigated further.
The police said that they had no reason to believe the death of Mr. Glushkov was suspicious, but that they were being especially cautious in light of recent events.
Follow Richard Pérez-Peña on Twitter: @PerezPena.
Ceylan Yeginsu contributed reporting from Salisbury, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, and Sophia Kishkovsky from Moscow.