Britain will expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve toxin attack on a Russian former double agent in southern England, Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday, adding it was the biggest single expulsion in over 30 years.
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 has repeatedly denied any involvement in the nerve agent attack, said Britain should expect retaliation for its actions.
A day earlier the Kremlin said Russia had nothing to do with the alleged poisoning of Skripal adding that Moscow will not accept any groundless threats or ultimatums, after May threatened to expel diplomats and downgrade relations.
“Moscow’s position [on the Skripal case] is well known… Moscow had nothing to do with the incident that took place in the UK,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday. Peskov added that Moscow remains open for “cooperation in the investigation of the case.
Unfortunately, we haven’t been met with any reciprocity from the British side,” he concluded.
Former spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury on March 4 and remain in hospital in critical condition. A police officer was also harmed and remains in a serious condition.
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.” She went on to official blame the Russian state for the killing.
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.
May also 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.