Russia has responded this weekend to a recent move by the United Kingdom to expel 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former spy and his daughter earlier this month.
Russia announced on Saturday that it also would expel 23 British diplomats and close a consulate in St. Petersburg in retaliation, The Washington Post reported.
The diplomatic row between the UK and Russia is rallying some other European nations as British officials now openly accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of direct involvement in the nerve agent poisoning.
On March 4, former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, who also formerly worked as a double agent on behalf of British intelligence, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were found unconscious on a park bench in the southern English town of Salisbury. Investigators determined the two had been poisoned by a Russian nerve agent. They remain in critical condition at a hospital.
An investigating police officer also was hospitalized, along with 18 other people who were treated and released, according to news reports.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the British diplomats, declared persona non grata, had a week to leave the country. Russia also said it is booting the British Council, an organization promoting cultural and educational activities that Russia says harbors British intelligence officers, from the country.
So far, all of this is to be expected following the UK’s diplomatic retaliation for the poisoning. It’s not surprising that Russian officials have taken a defiant stance after being accused of what essentially amounts to an open attack on British soil.
But the harsh tone taken by British officials this week, including by Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, could be an indicator that more measures are coming, including possible sanctions against Russian oligarchs close to Putin.
On Friday, Johnson said it is “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin ordered the nerve agent attack against someone he considers an enemy of the Russian state, the Post reported.
Addressing Parliament on Wednesday, May said Russian officials had “treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance.” She said the incident was the first chemical weapons attack in NATO territory since the organization was founded, according to the newspaper.
For the most part, U.S. officials have echoed May’s condemnation of the attack, although U.S. President Donald Trump has not forcefully spoken out against Putin or any other Russian official.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, however, did accuse the Russian government of using chemical weapons to assassinate its enemies and to help “kill Syrian children.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said earlier this week that the attack “fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order.”
Asked to respond to Saturday’s announcement by Russia, Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat said, “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,” the Post reported, citing the BBC.
One of the remaining unanswered questions, however, is how the UK’s traditional close ally, the U.S., will respond with Trump at the helm. If recent experience is any indication, the Trump administration probably will hope other scandals dominate the headlines and the latest Russian scandal will just go away. By all indications coming from the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe, however, that’s not going to happen.