Prime Minister Theresa May threw 23 Russian diplomats out of Britain in retaliation for the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter on U.K. soil, as she braced the country for further attacks.
May said the U.K. will move to freeze Russian state assets where necessary in response to what she called an “unlawful use of force” involving weapons-grade nerve agent against the U.K. More steps will be taken against Vladimir Putin’s government in secret, she said, a hint that Britain could launch cyberattacks on Kremlin interests.
But more extensive action such as financial sanctions, or preventing Russian banks from using the SWIFT international payments messaging system, require multilateral support and time.
The Russian Embassy in London denounced the expulsions as “totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted.” The crisis is a key test for May as she navigates Brexit and for the wider Western alliance in how it responds to Putin on the eve of Russian elections.
The reprisals come after Russia refused to recognize a deadline of midnight Tuesday to provide an explanation for the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in southwest England.
“They have treated the use of a military grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” May told Parliament on Thursday. “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable.”
May outlined the action she will take against Putin’s administration, starting with the removal of “undeclared intelligence officers” based in London to “dismantle the Russian espionage network in the U.K.”
She gave 23 officials operating out of the Russian embassy one week’s notice to leave the U.K., saying these individuals were effectively spies.
“This will be the single biggest expulsion for over thirty years and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian State has acted against our country,” May said. “Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the U.K. for years to come — and if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”
Other steps May announced include:
- New laws to give security services the power to detain individuals suspected of “hostile state activity” at the British border, with further measures considered to stop foreign agents operating in the U.K.
- Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
- Freezing Russian State assets “wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents”
- Police to target “serious criminals and corrupt elites.” May said: “There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country.” This was the closest May came to threatening the wealth of London-based oligarchs — some of whom are Putin’s enemies while others are close to him.
May did not make any mention of restricting the activities of Russian banks, or revoking visas for individual Russian citizens linked to the Kremlin. Nor did she say if any action would be taken against the Russian broadcaster RT. The Kremlin had threatened to expel British journalists from Russia if the U.K. closed down RT.
The Prime Minister said she’s seeking support from international allies and has already spoken to Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the French president.
Britain will be making its case for coordinated action at the United Nations Security Council later on Wednesday. Russia is one of five veto-wielding members on it.
“It is a very weak response because it is a single country response,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. by phone from Berlin. “‘If there were a collective response by a group of Western countries, something similar to what we saw in the case of Russian aggression in Ukraine, then we would talking about a strong signal. In this case Britain is basically on its own.”