LONDON — Britain ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats believed involved in espionage-related activities, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Wednesday, in the first wave of measures against Moscow for a chemical attack against a former double agent.
May, speaking to Parliament, also outlined a range of other steps, including a halt to high-level meetings with Russian officials and cancellation of a planned visit to Britain by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
May repeated the conclusion of British investigators that Russia had either deployed or lost control of a dangerous nerve agent used in the attack — targeting the former spy and his daughter — and said Russia’s defiant response has “demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events.”
“Instead, they have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance,” she told lawmakers while announcing the reprisal measures.
She gave no further details on the Russian diplomats ordered expelled, but said they were deemed “undeclared intelligence officers.” She called it the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain since Cold War-era retribution in the 1970s.
May said more countermeasures were being considered. She said Britain sought support from the United States, the European Union and NATO, but she did not outline any requests she made from allies to join in the reprisals.
Lawmakers in Parliament asked May pointedly what Britain’s allies were willing to do — and she mostly evaded the question, except to say that they had offered Britain support.
In response, the Russian Embassy in London denounced the British steps as “hostile” and a new blow to relations with Moscow.
“We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted,” said the embassy statement. “All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain.”
Earlier, Britain’s Foreign Ministry also called for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to update members on the investigation into the nerve-agent attack. Russia, as part of the permanent five nations on the council, holds veto power over any possible U.N. moves to come.
“It is not in our national interest to break off all dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation. But in the aftermath of this appalling act against our country, this relationship cannot be the same,” May said in Parliament.
On Monday, May asserted that it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the poison attack and gave the Russian government a deadline to explain itself and the origins of the rare and powerful “weapons-grade” nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, last week.
As expected, May’s deadline passed on Wednesday and Russia did not respond — or did not respond with the details or explanations that Britain sought.
Instead, Russian officials and state media accused the British of whipping up “anti-Russia hysteria.” The Kremlin rejected the “unfounded accusations” and shrugged off British demands.
British politicians and commentators said May could employ a range of diplomatic and financial sanctions — from clamping down on Russian oligarchs’ property-buying binge in London to tossing out embassy staff.
In Brussels, the home of the NATO defense alliance, British diplomats outlined their government’s findings to their alliance peers, making clear they believed the attack had security consequences for all 29 members.
“Allies expressed deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on alliance territory since NATO’s foundation,” the organization said in a statement. “NATO regards any use of chemical weapons as a threat to international peace and security.”
But the British diplomats held back from triggering the formal processes that could escalate the NATO response and pull other nations into a conflict with Russia, a NATO official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak about the closed-door meeting.
The former double agent Skripal was jailed in Russia in 2006 for selling state secrets to British intelligence for 10 years, but he was released in 2010 as part of a high-profile spy swap. He and his daughter remain in critical condition at a Salisbury hospital.
A spokesman for 10 Downing Street said the British leader discussed the attack with President Trump, who said Washington was “with the U.K. all the way” and that Russia “must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used.”
In his last remarks, just hours after being fired by Trump via Twitter, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned, “Much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government.”
Tillerson said: “Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly. Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”
May also spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “They agreed that the international community should coordinate closely as the investigation developed and in the wake of Russia’s response,” said her spokesman.
Russia essentially blew off May’s midnight deadline for an explanation of how the deadly Novichok nerve agent appeared on the streets of the quiet medieval town of Salisbury, famous for its nearby ruins of Stonehenge.
After Lavrov told Britain on Tuesday that Moscow had no intention of responding to May’s ultimatum, the ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, dialed up the heat on an evening talk show on one of the leading state-run channels.
“No one can come before their national Parliament and say: I give Russia 24 hours,” said Zakharova. “What kind of conversation is that in principle?” She then appeared to chastise London for not behaving like a nuclear power, and took a shot at Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
“When a country’s Foreign Ministry is led by people who have absolutely nothing to do with foreign policy, who have built their career around populism, they have no idea either about the organization for the prohibition of nuclear weapons or the relevant [chemical weapons convention].”
“To them, it is normal to go out and start intimidating,” Zakharova said. “Don’t. There is no need.”
In a conference call with journalists in Moscow Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that theories surrounding Skripal’s poisoning are not the Kremlin’s problem. He reiterated that Moscow’s official position, that it was not involved and demands proof, has been delivered through diplomatic channels.
Peskov said that Moscow does not accept London’s accusations and hopes the West will come to its senses and engage Russia in a joint investigation into the poisoning of Skripal.
Regarding possible British actions against Russia on Wednesday, Peskov said that “any unlawful actions against any Russian media outlets in the U.K. will, of course, lead to reciprocal measures backed the principle of reciprocity.” So far, no one in Russia has specified which outlets a response would apply to, though they have suggested that every British outlet could be targeted.
So far, Lavrov is the most senior Russian official to comment on May’s ultimatum. President Vladimir Putin, according to his press service, was traveling to Russia’s southern Dagestan Republic.
Bodner reported from Moscow. Karla Adam in London and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.