The Russian Foreign Ministry said that “23 diplomatic personnel from the British Embassy in Moscow have been declared persona non grata” and have one week to leave. The closure of the consulate in St. Petersburg was not given a firm deadline, with the Foreign Ministry saying only that they will be given sufficient time to wrap up their work there.
Britain on Wednesday had ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats, many of whom were said by Prime Minister Theresa May to be Russian intelligence officers, after Moscow ignored an ultimatum to provide explanations for how a Russian nerve agent came to be used in the poisoning of a former spy on British soil.
The spy, 66-year-old Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old-daughter, Yulia, were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury on March 4. After several days of investigation, British authorities determined that they were poisoned with a nerve agent known as Novichok, which is believed to be unique to Russia.
The British government said that it was expecting such a response from Russia.
Speaking at her party’s spring forum in London, Prime Minister Theresa May said that Britain would “consider our next steps in the coming days, alongside our allies and partners.”
“We will never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian government,” she said, prompting applause.
The Foreign Office offered its own harsh words.
“Russia’s response doesn’t change the facts of the matter — the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable. It is Russia that is in flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
Russia was slow to respond to May’s decision, spending Thursday and Friday promising a swift and strong response. When Russia finally made its announcement Saturday, it went slightly beyond strictly reciprocal measures.
The Foreign Ministry said it would also order an end to all activities of the British Council, Britain’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities, and warned London that “if any further unfriendly actions are taken against Russia, the Russian side reserves the right to take other retaliatory measures.”
This is not the first time the British Council, an organization that promotes cultural exchange, has been caught up in retaliations. In 2008, the British Council’s regional offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg were closed, leaving only the head office in Moscow open.
The closure of the offices, ordered by Russia’s foreign ministry, followed the expulsion of Russian diplomats in Britain over the 2006 poisoning in London of the ex-KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko.
Stephen Kinnock, a British lawmaker who was the director of the British Council in St. Petersburg before it closed, told the BBC the latest move shows “how mean-spirited and vindictive the Putin regime really is.”
Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, told Moscow-based Interfax news agency that the British Council was used as a cover organization for British intelligence officers.
“Those measures should sober British politicians up,” Dzhabarov said, “primarily Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who dared to make an offensive statement regarding the head of a great state, virtually accusing him of ordering the poisoning of Skripal.”
Johnson on Friday had said it was “overwhelmingly likely” that it was Putin’s decision “to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K.”
Alexei Chepa, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said Saturday that he expected additional measures to be taken by the British government in response to Russia’s actions today. “Now we are warning the [British] that we will respond in an adequate manner to all further steps of this nature.”
Britain had been widely expecting a robust response from Russia, but it was immediately unclear if there would be further retaliatory moves.
When asked what the Britain should do next, Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, told the BBC: “I think what we got to do is focus entirely on the Putin regime, the Putin family, and the Putin henchmen and focus on their money, much of which is hidden in Western Europe.”
Others warned against a drawn out standoff.
Roderic Lyne, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, told the BBC: “I don’t think it would be sensible to get dragged down into a mud-wrestling battle with a gorilla.”