The Slatest

British PM Theresa May Expels 23 Russian Diplomats in Unprecedented Response to Poisoning of Ex-Spy

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou on September 4, 2016. / AFP / SPUTNIK / ALEXEI DRUZHININ        (Photo credit should read ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 4, 2016.
ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Getty Images

Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Wednesday that 23 Russian diplomats will be expelled from Britain after Moscow refused to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent was used in a March 4 attack in Salisbury, England, that hospitalized a Russian ex-spy and his daughter and exposed hundreds of other people.

May had said on Monday that the use of the Russian military–developed nerve agent, called Novichok, could only be explained by either a deliberate Russian attack or the Russians losing control of the weapon, and she demanded Russian authorities explain which it was. Today, she described their response as one of “sarcasm, contempt and defiance” leading the government to believe that “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.”

She described the 23 agents expelled as “undeclared intelligence agents”—thanks to London’s large Russian émigré community, there are now believed to be more Russian spies there than during the height of the Cold War—and this will be the largest mass expulsion since 1985. May also revoked an invitation for Russia’s foreign minister to visit, announced plans to freeze Russian financial assets that could be used to threaten British citizens or property, and announced that British officials and the royal family will not be attending the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Kremlin, which has denied Russian involvement in the attack, has already announced it will respond with expulsions of its own. Russia’s ambassador to the U.K. said that Britain should have acted on its suspicions by referring the matter to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and provided samples for Russian labs to analyze.

May had been under enormous political pressure to take real and tangible steps to punish Russia, given the criticism of her predecessor David Cameron’s cautious response to the 2006 poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko. While today’s actions will certainly lead to the further deterioration of British-Russian relations, she stopped short of barring any Russian companies or individuals from London’s financial center. Her moves don’t go much beyond existing sanctions and are unlikely to have any dramatic impact on any senior Russian officials, with that country’s elections coming in a few days.

Another step, which had been discussed but that May appears not to have taken, is suspending the controversial Russian government–backed TV network RT from broadcasting in Britain. The Russian government had threatened to bar all British media—state affiliated or not—from working in Russia if May had done so.

The U.K. government is also planning to brief NATO on its investigation today. In her speech, May described the attack targeting Skripal as not just an assassination but “an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom.” She also emphasized the military origins of Novichok. This has raised the question of whether the British government could invoke NATO’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack against one member of the alliance is an attack against all. It has been invoked only once, by the United States after the 9/11 attacks. According to the BBC, an Article 5 invocation is unlikely, but Britain will still try to enlist the support of its allies. But at a time when European countries are frustrated with May’s government over Brexit, and when the U.S. president has been reluctant to criticize Russia and resistant to even endorsing Article 5 in principle, the British may have less support from their friends than they might ordinarily.

While the Trump administration has condemned the attack and pledged its support for Britain, the White House notably avoided endorsing May’s conclusion that Russia was responsible on Monday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went much farther in endorsing the British government’s findings—shortly before Trump announced his firing. Trump did say on Tuesday that it “sounds to me like it would be Russia, based on all the evidence they have.” He added: “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.” The French government, which has sought to improve relations with Russia under President Emmanuel Macron, has also declined to endorse its ally’s accusations against Russia and said it is waiting for “definitive conclusions” before deciding on a course of action.

That’s also basically been the line from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Though Corbyn has condemned the use of chemical weapons, in a speech that brought cries of “shame” from the Conservative Party benches, he more or less endorsed the Russian government’s position by saying that action should only be taken through the OPCW and asking May about Russia’s request for a sample on which it could perform its own tests. His spokesman, Seumas Milne, caused more controversy by comparing the government’s conclusion to intelligence failures before the Iraq war. A number of members of the Labour Party backed May in defiance of Corbyn.

While skepticism about intelligence claims and government claims is always warranted, the seriousness of this attack, the background of its target, and Russia’s uncooperative response—combined with a clear pattern of the Russian government targeting its critics abroad—makes Corbyn’s response to this relatively limited actions hard to justify.

Given that the attack on Skripal wasn’t even the only medical mystery involving Putin in Britain during the past week, the crisis seems unlikely to de-escalate any time soon, either on the international level or in London.