Prime minister Theresa May gave 23 Russian diplomats a week to leave the UK today. All of them, she says, are undercover spies.
The move constitutes the UK’s biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War. It will deprive the Russian embassy of 40% of its staff, according to the BBC.
May’s order was a direct response to the poisoning of former British agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil, allegedly committed by Russian operatives. She said Westminster gave the Kremlin a chance to respond to accusations that it was behind the poisoning, but that it reacted with “complete disdain.”
Russia denies any role in the attack on Skripal, a Russian who worked as a double-agent for Britain. Skripal was found to have been given a rare nerve agent called Novichok, which British authorities say definitely came from Russia. “[Russia] have provided no credible explanation that could suggest they lost control of their nerve agent,” May told the House of Commons.
May is under pressure to take still stronger measures, such as sanctions or seizing assets held in the UK by Russian officials or Kremlin-tied oligarchs. She said the government will put together legislation protecting Britain from hostile state activity, consider anti-espionage legislation, sanction Russian human rights abusers, and heighten checks on Russians entering the UK. The UK will also not send officials or the royal family to the upcoming World Cup in Russia, and a visit to London by Russian foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov has been cancelled.
No specific promise was made with regard to Russian elites’ UK assets, but May said: “We will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people—or their money—in our country.”
This is the biggest ejection of Russian diplomats since 1971, when 90 were kicked out. In 2006, just four Russians were expelled in the wake of the murder of British-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. In comparison, the US seized Russian diplomatic properties and expelled 35 Russian diplomats and operatives in 2016, in retaliation for the Kremlin’s alleged hacking and interference in the US presidential election that year. The Kremlin responded by forcing the US to cut 755 people from its diplomatic force in Russia.