LONDON ― British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday that the United Kingdom would expel 23 Russian diplomats after the Kremlin failed to take responsibility for the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
May categorized those being forced to leave as “undeclared intelligence officers” and gave them a week to depart, she said during a speech in Parliament on Wednesday. The ousters trim the approximately 60-member Russian diplomatic corps in the U.K. by more than one third.
In addition, the U.K. is suspending all high-level contact with Russia and plans to “detain those suspected of hostile state activity at the U.K. border,” she said. Further, neither U.K. ministers nor members of the royal family will travel to Russia this summer to attend the World Cup.
May added that she spoke to several allies, including President Donald Trump, who agreed to “cooperate closely to respond to this barbaric act, to stand up for the rules-based international order which Russia seeks to undermine.”
May said Monday that it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the incident, given that the nerve agent used in the attack, novichok, was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. She gave the Kremlin until the end of the day on Tuesday to produce an explanation for what happened.
May said Russia responded to her demand for an explanation with “sarcasm, contempt and defiance.”
The Russian embassy in the U.K. slammed the expulsions as “hostile,” “unjustified” and “shortsighted,” blaming British leadership for the deterioration of the U.K.-Russian relationship.
Putin’s government had rejected May’s deadline, denied all responsibility and accused the U.K. of pointing fingers for political purposes. It also requested access to the British investigation because Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, is a Russian citizen.
“It is absolutely unacceptable and we consider this a provocation,” Russian ambassador to the U.K. Alexander Yakovenko told Sky News on Wednesday.
Trump was silent on the incident until Tuesday, when he said he would condemn Russia if it ended up being found responsible for the attack.
“It sounds to me like [officials in the U.K.] believe it was Russia, and I would certainly take that finding as fact,” he said.
He reaffirmed U.S. solidarity with Britain in a phone call with May later on Tuesday, agreeing that Russia “must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom,” according to the White House.
European Council President Donald Tusk said he would raise the topic of retaliatory steps next week at a European Union summit, urging “transatlantic unity.” The U.K.’s Foreign Office has also requested an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting to continue the conversation.
Britain responded similarly ― by expelling four diplomats, issuing visa restrictions and freezing assets ― after the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who had been living in the U.K. Critics slammed the measures as weak and insufficient at the time.
This article has been updated to include the Russian embassy response.