UK expels 23 Russian diplomats over spy row; Moscow to retaliate

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London—Britain is to kick out 23 Russian diplomats, the biggest such expulsion since the Cold War, signalling a plunge in relations to their lowest point in decades in the wake of a chemical attack on a former Russian spy in southern England.

Prime Minister Theresa May pointed the finger of blame firmly at Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday as she outlined a series of retaliatory measures in parliament.

Russia denies any involvement in the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, who have been critical in hospital since they were found unconscious on March 4 on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury.

May announced measures including the potential freezing of Russian state assets that pose a security threat, new laws to counter hostile state activity and a downgrading of Britain’s attendance at the soccer World Cup in Russia.

She had given Moscow until midnight on Tuesday night to explain how the Novichok nerve agent came to be deployed on the streets of Salisbury, saying either the Russian state was responsible or it had lost control of a stock of the 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.”

May said the only possible conclusion was that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of the Skripals and the harm to Nick Bailey, a police officer who is in a serious condition after being exposed to the nerve agent.

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” she said.

The Russian embassy in London described the steps announced by May as “unacceptable, unjustified and short-sighted”. Moscow has repeatedly warned London to expect retaliation.

The two governments blamed each other for the crisis.

“Many of us looked at a post-Soviet Russia with hope. We wanted a better relationship and it is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way,” said May.

Moscow ‘will retaliate soon’

Russia on Wednesday called Britain’s decision to expel its diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy a sign that London was choosing confrontation with Russia, adding that retaliation would follow shortly.

“The British government made a choice for confrontation with Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said May’s statement was an “unprecedentedly rude provocation which undermines the foundations of normal bilateral dialogue between our countries.”

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