Britain is kicking 23 suspected Russian spies out of the country in the largest mass expulsion of diplomats since the Cold War, as relations with Moscow plunged into the deep-freeze following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury.
Announcing the action in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia amounted to “an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom”.
She announced the suspension of high-level contacts with Russia, including a boycott of this summer’s World Cup by Government ministers and members of the royal family.
And she said Russian state assets will be frozen “wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents”.
Russia’s embassy in London denounced the move as “unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted”, after Moscow denied any connection with the Salisbury incident.
Speaking ahead of the PM’s statement, a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin told reporters: “Moscow won’t accept absolutely unfounded accusations against it, which are not substantiated by any evidence, and won’t accept the language of ultimatum.”
But Mrs May said Russia had failed to provide a “credible” explanation for how the Novichok nerve agent which it had developed came to be used in the attack on the Skripals, who remain in hospital after being found slumped on a bench on March 4.
She told MPs: “There is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter – and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey.
“This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.”
Mrs May addressed MPs after being briefed by senior military and intelligence chiefs at a meeting of the National Security Council at which it was agreed to take “immediate actions to dismantle Russia’s spy network in the UK”.
The 23 Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence officers have been given a week to leave, in the largest mass expulsion since 31 were ordered out in 1985 following the defection of double agent Oleg Gordievsky.
The expulsions will “fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come”, said Mrs May, adding: “If they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”
Mrs May told MPs the Government will also develop new powers “to harden our defences against all forms of hostile state activity”, including by tightening checks on cross-border movements of those who may endanger UK security.
A “Magnitsky” amendment to legislation currently going through Parliament will create powers to target the assets of those responsible for human rights violations.
Mrs May told MPs: “Led by the National Crime Agency, 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.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was barracked by Conservative MPs as he asked the Prime Minister how she had responded to requests from the Russian government for a sample of the nerve agent used in the attack so it could run its own tests.
Condemning the Salisbury incident as a “dreadful, appalling act”, Mr Corbyn called for multilateral action in response and said it was a matter of “huge regret” that the UK’s diplomatic network had been cut by 25% in the last five years
The Foreign Office said that the Salisbury incident was not isolated, but followed a “well-established pattern of Russian state aggression”.
The PM welcomed support from allies including the US, Nato and the EU, and said Britain would be pushing for a “robust international response” at the UN Security Council later on Wednesday.
“This was not just an act of attempted murder in Salisbury – nor just an act against UK,” she said.
“It is an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. And it is an affront to the rules-based system on which we and our international partners depend.”