Russia to expel UK diplomats as crisis over nerve toxin attack deepens

ASTANA/LONDON, March 16 (Reuters) - Russia is set to expel British diplomats in retaliation for Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to kick out 23 Russians as relations with London crashed to a post-Cold War low over an attack with military-grade nerve agent on English soil.

After the first known offensive use of such a weapon in Europe since World War Two, May blamed Moscow and gave 23 Russians who she said were spies working under diplomatic cover at the London embassy a week to leave.

Russia has denied any involvement, cast Britain as a post-colonial power unsettled by Brexit, and even suggested London fabricated the attack in an attempt to whip up anti-Russian hysteria.

Asked by a Reuters reporter in the Kazakh capital if Russia planned to expel British diplomats from Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov smiled and said: "We will, of course."

RELATED: The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning

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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
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The case of Sergei Skripal's poisoning
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
Chairs are seen on tables inside the Mill pub which former Russian inteligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia visited before they were found poisoned on a bench nearby in Salisbury, Britain, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Witness Freya Church, 27, walks with a policeman near a forensic tent where Sergei Skripal, 66 and his duaghter Yulia Skripal, in her 30s, were found unconscious in Salisbury town centre two days previously on March 6, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010 and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A forensics tent covers the bench, where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped, in a cordoned off area in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers seal off the road on which Russian Sergei Skripal and his daughter have been staying in Salisbury, Britain, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers stand on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley leaves after giving a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Forensic police officers wearing hazmat suits examine a vehicle believed to belong to Sergei Skripal on March 8, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Police investigations continue into the use of a nerve agent to poison Sergei Skripal, who was found ill in a Salisbury park with his daughter on March 4. Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition in hospital. Sergei Skripal was granted refuge in the UK following a spy swap between the US and Russia in 2010. (Photo by Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley (R) and Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies give a statement on March 7, 2018 in Salisbury, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. A police officer who was the first to attend the scene is now also in a serious condition in hospital. Police are treating the suspected poisoning as attempted murder by nerve agent. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Police officers stand on duty outside a pub which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Henry Nicholls
Londoners pass-by the London newspaper Evening Standard's latest headline about ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal's suspected poisoning by Russia in southern England, on 6th March 2018, in the capital's financial district, the City of London, England. As both Skripal and a woman believed to be his daughter Ylulia remain in a critical condition at Salisbury hospital where he was taken ill on Sunday 4th, British Counter Terrorism Police have taken over the investigation from the local Wiltshire force. The British press have been quick in blaming President Putin's involvement just weeks before his Presidential re-election. (Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures via getty Images)
SALISBURY, ENGLAND - MARCH 07: A police tent is seen behind a cordon outside The Maltings shopping centre where a man and a woman were found critically ill on a bench on March 4 and taken to hospital sparking a major incident, on March 7, 2018 in Wiltshire, England. Sergei Skripal, who was granted refuge in the UK following a 'spy swap' between the US and Russia in 2010, and his daughter remain critically ill after being exposed to an 'unknown substance'. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal attends a hearing at the Moscow District Military Court in Moscow on August 9, 2006. Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent whose mysterious collapse in England sparked concerns of a possible poisoning by Moscow, has been living in Britain since a high-profile spy swap in 2010. Police were probing his exposure to an unknown substance, which left him unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury and saw media draw parallels to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-spy who died of radioactive polonium poisoning in 2006. / AFP PHOTO / Kommersant Photo / Yuri SENATOROV / Russia OUT (Photo credit should read YURI SENATOROV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A tent covers the park bench where former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A police officer stands at a cordon around the bench where former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after they were poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Britain's Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accompanied by Temporary Chief Constable Kier Pritchard, visits the scene where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found after having been poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury, Britain, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
A police officer stands on duty outside a restaurant which has been secured as part of the investigation into the poisoning of former Russian inteligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Police officers work at a supermarket near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 6, 2018: Pictured in this file image dated August 9, 2006, is retired colonel Sergei Skripal during a hearing at the Moscow District Court. File image/Press Office of Moscow District Military Court/TASS (Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images)
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Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia could announce its response at any minute.

Britain, the United States, Germany and France jointly called on Russia on Thursday to explain the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump said it looked as though the Russians were behind it.

A German government spokesman called the attack "an immense, appalling event." Chancellor Angela Merkel said an EU summit next week would discuss the issue, in the first instance to seek clarity, and that any boycott of the soccer World Cup, which Russia is hosting in June and July, was not an immediate priority.

INDEPENDENT VERIFICATION

Russia has refused Britain's demands to explain how Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military, was used to strike down Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, in the southern English city of Salisbury.

Britain has written to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which monitors compliance with the global convention outlawing the use of such weapons, to obtain independent verification of the substance used.

Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter have been critically ill since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench.

A British policeman was also poisoned when he went to help them is, and is in a serious but stable condition.

British investigators are working on the theory that an item of clothing or cosmetics or a gift in the luggage of Skripal's daughter was impregnated with the toxin, and then opened in Skripal's house in Salisbury, the Daily Telegraph said.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB spy who is poised to win a fourth term in an election on Sunday, has so far only said publicly that Britain should get to the bottom of what has happened.

In a sign of just how tense the relationship has become, British and Russian ministers used openly insulting language while the Russian ambassador said London was trying to divert attention from the difficulties it was having managing Britain's exit from the European Union.

"SHOCKING AND UNFORGIVABLE"

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Britain had no quarrel with the Russian people but that it was overwhelmingly likely that Putin himself took the decision to deploy the nerve toxin in England.

"We have nothing against the Russians themselves. There is to be no Russophobia as a result of what is happening," he said.

"Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision – and we think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision – to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK."

The Kremlin's Peskov called the allegation that Putin was involved "a shocking and unforgivable breach of the diplomatic rules of decent behavior," TASS news agency reported.

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Vladimir Putin through the years
P362575 05: A class photo with Vladimir Putin, (fourth row, second from left) dated 1966 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Laski Diffusion)
368975 01: (AMERICAS ONLY) FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, poses for a photograph in this file photo with his parents Maria and Vladimir Putin in1985 just before his departure to Germany. Putin was sworn in as Russia''s second democratically elected president May 7, 2000, pledging to restore Russia as a great power. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Newsmakers)
ITAR-TASS: LENINGRAD, USSR. Vladimir Putin seen with his wife Lyudmila and daughter Maria. File photo from family archive was taken in spring 1985. (Photo ITAR-TASS) (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
St, petersburg mayor anatoly sobchak and austrian chancellor's wife christine vranitzky during a ceremony to name 'austria square' in downtown st, petersburg, austria has pledged to restore the square, future president of russia, vladimir putin, looks on, far left, september 1992. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George Bush meets with President Vladimir Putin at the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
KRASNODAR, RUSSIA: Russian acting President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to a boy (R) during his visit to the Children's regional clinic hospital in Krasnodar 11 February 2000. Putin arrived in Krasnodar for a two-day visit to take a part in the All Russia Conference on emergency measures to stabilise and develop the Russian agro-industrial complex. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) (Photo credit should read SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Uzbek president islam karimov helping rf president vladimir putin put on a traditional robe, uzbekistan, december 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura greet President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila outside of the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Bush was meeting with Putin to thank him for signing the UN resolution demanding disarmament of Iraq. (Photo by ?? Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - JANUARY4: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar (L) pose with their wives Ludmila Putin (2nd L) and Ana Botella before their lunch at Moncloa Palace June 14. Putin said he had no reason to believe the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was politically motivated but vowed to examine the case, which has stirred stormy protest in Moscow. (Photo credit should read SERGEI KARPUKHIN/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Vladimir Putin - Politician, Mayor St. Petersburg, Russia - signs an agreement about the marketing of inventions. Second Mayor and Senator of Economics of Hamburg Hans-Juergen Krupp (right) (Photo by Ambor/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Moscow, russia, outgoing russian president boris yeltsin (r) shaking hands with russian prime minister and acting president vladimir putin (l) as he leaves moscow's kremlin, the seat of russian power,1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
Russian prime minister vladimir putin seen casting his vote during the elections to the state duma, at the polling station #2026 in moscow's kosygina street,moscow, russia, december 19, 1999. (Photo by: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)
N362234 01: (FILE PHOTO) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov on August 16, 1999. President Boris Yeltsin announced on national television Friday, Dec. 31, 1999 that he had resigned and presidential elections will be held within 90 days to replace him. Yeltsin said he was stepping down immediately because he wanted Putin to succeed him. Putin, the country's most popular politician, immediately took control of the government and will serve as acting president until the elections. (photo by Laski Diffusion/Liaison Agency)
SEVEROMORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 7: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin watches the tactical exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
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British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson sparked particular outrage in Moscow with his blunt comment on Thursday that "Russia should go away, it should shut up."

Russia's Defence Ministry said he was an "intellectual impotent" and Lavrov said he probably lacked education. Williamson studied social science at the University of Bradford.

"Well he's a nice man, I'm told, maybe he wants to claim a place in history by making some bold statements," Lavrov said. "Maybe he lacks education, I don’t know."

In London, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn struck a starkly different tone to that of the British government by warning against rushing into a new Cold War before full evidence of Moscow's culpability was proven.

Corbyn said Labour did not support Putin and that Russia should be held to account if it was behind the attack.

"That does not mean we should resign ourselves to a 'new cold war' of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent," he said. (Additional reporting by William James, David Milliken and Kate Holton in London, and Maria Tsvetkova, Jack Stubbs and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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