Tensions keep increasing between the United Kingdom and Russia as the Kremlin ordered 23 British diplomats expelled on Saturday in a retaliation against London. In an escalation of the conflict that has only grown after London accused Moscow of orchestrating a nerve toxin attack on a former spy in Britain, the Kremlin also said it would shut down all activities by the British Council and close the British Consulate in St. Petersburg.
The British Council is a cultural organization that promotes the English language as well as cultural ties between the two countries. That closure is seen as a particularly “low blow, hurting the Russian people—not the British government,” notes BBC’s Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford. Yet the truth is that the Council’s presence had already been sharply reduced over the past few years amid growing political tension between London and Moscow. Russia had already ordered the Council to close all its offices besides its Moscow headquarters in 2008.
The U.K. government tried to play down Moscow’s retaliatory measures—“We anticipated a response of this kind,” said Prime Minister Theresa May—but they were “tougher than expected,” notes Reuters. Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the nerve agent attack on Wednesday.
It’s difficult not to read the decision by the Kremlin on an electoral note considering it came a day before a presidential election in which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win easily. Throughout the campaign, Putin has worked hard to portray himself as the one who is defending the country against Western powers who are eager to weaken Russia.
May implied the tit-for-tat retaliation could continue. “We will consider our next steps in the coming days alongside our allies and partners,” she said at the Conservative party spring forum on Saturday. The British government had already warned Moscow that an escalation of the retaliations would lead to more action from London, which could include an expulsion of the Russian ambassador.
EU diplomats are set to meet on Monday in Brussels, where they are expected to discuss whether they should pursue a new approach toward Moscow.