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UK to Expel 23 Russian Diplomats Over Poisoning of Ex-Spy

Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former spy in Salisbury, southern England, earlier this month.
Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would expel 23 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former spy in Salisbury, southern England, earlier this month.

ho/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

LONDON—British Prime Minister

Theresa May

said the U.K. would expel 23 Russian diplomats from the U.K., its single biggest expulsion in more than three decades, saying Moscow had showed complete disdain for the gravity of the use of a nerve agent on British soil.

In the most dramatic diplomatic confrontation between London and Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Mrs. May said the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of

Sergei Skripal,

a 66-year-old former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia, 33, earlier this month.

The two are in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Salisbury, where Mr. Skripal lives and the attack took place. The British leader was speaking after Moscow missed a midnight deadline to explain how a Russian former informant for Britain’s foreign intelligence service was poisoned in the U.K. with a deadly Soviet-era nerve agent.

“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom,” Mrs. May said in the House of Commons. “In the aftermath of this appalling act against our country, this relationship cannot be the same.”

She said the 23 Russian diplomats had been identified as undeclared intelligence officers and would have one week to leave, in a move that she said would degrade Russia’s intelligence capability in Britain for years to come. If Russia seeks to rebuild it, the U.K. would prevent it from doing so.

The Russian Embassy in London said in a statement that Russia considered this “hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted,” adding that all the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-U.K. relationship lay with “the current political leadership of Britain.” Moscow has in recent days called claims of its involvement in the incident “nonsense.”

The expulsion is the biggest from the U.K. since 1985, when the country expelled 25 Soviet citizens accused of spying. In 1971, the U.K. asked 90 Soviet diplomats to leave after a KGB defector revealed details of espionage activity by a large number of Soviet diplomats. In the mid-1980s, the U.K. expelled 25 Soviet citizens accused of spying. Most recently, in 2016, former President

Barack Obama

expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the U.S. and blocked access to two Russian diplomatic sites in response to Russian efforts to interfere with the Russian presidential election.

Mrs. May announced a range of other measures against Moscow, including the freezing of Russian state assets if there was evidence they could be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. residents and nationals and other measures that couldn’t be shared publicly for reasons of national security.

She also said the U.K. was suspending all planned high-level bilateral contacts with Russia and revoking an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister

Sergei Lavrov

to visit the country.

A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry,

Maria Zakharova,

said on her


page that Mr. Lavrov hadn’t accepted the invitation, and that the ministry would issue an official statement later Wednesday.

Police officers work next to a children's park at the scene of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, on March 13.
Police officers work next to a children’s park at the scene of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, on March 13.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Mrs. May said she would introduce legislation to stop people suspected of hostile state activity from entering the country, currently only affecting terrorism suspects, and propose laws to increase the U.K.’s ability to place sanctions on countries suspected of human-rights abuses such as those suffered by

Sergei Magnitsky,

a Russian anticorruption lawyer who died in 2009 while in the hands of Russian authorities.

She had faced pressure from lawmakers to announce tough action against Russia, particularly since the nerve agent used in the March 4 attack put lives of members of the public at risk, but she also had to weigh the risk of provoking an aggressive response from Russia.

She added that the U.K. wouldn’t to send ministers or members of the royal family to the soccer World Cup in Russia over the summer.

Tony Brenton,

Britain’s ambassador to Moscow at the time of the 2006 poisoning in London of former Russian intelligence officer

Alexander Litvinenko,

said the U.K. would need support from its allies for its response to be effective. The U.K. on Wednesday called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council to update members on the investigation into the attack.

“A crucial dimension is what support we get from our allies,” Mr. Brenton said. In the case of Mr. Litvinenko, Germany and France were unwilling to commit more than making supportive statements. This time, relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated to a point that allies in Europe may be willing to take coordinated action, he said.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Wednesday said it was deeply concerned about the first offensive use of a nerve agent on NATO territory since the group was founded. NATO called on Russia to provide a full disclosure of its nerve agent program and said the attack a clear breach of international norms and agreements.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said he stood with the U.K. and that EU leaders would discuss the attack at a meeting next week.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, is also expected to discuss the attack, European diplomats said. Mrs. May said the U.K. is working with the OPCW so they can independently verify Britain’s analysis.

“It is unacceptable, killing someone on foreign territory is unacceptable,” said a European diplomat. “It goes beyond spy novels. It goes too far. This is a red line.”

—Julian E. Barnes in Brussels, and Stephen Fidler and Wiktor Szary in London contributed to this article.

Write to Jenny Gross at

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