Russia to expel 23 British diplomats in spy poisoning standoff

Image: British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow leaves the Russian Forei
British Ambassador to Russia Laurie Bristow leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2018. Copyright DAVID MDZINARISHVILI
Copyright DAVID MDZINARISHVILI
By Saphora Smith and Reuters with NBC News World News
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Russia said it would also withdraw permission for Britain to open a general consulate in St Petersburg and would close the British Council in Russia.

LONDON — Russia is to expel 23 British diplomats in retaliation for the 23 Russian envoys expelled from the U.K. earlier this week as tensions between the two countries continue to escalate after a nerve weapon was used in the attempted assassination of a former double agent on U.K. soil.

Russia said it would also withdraw permission for Britain to open a general consulate in St Petersburg and would close the British Council, an international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities, in Russia.

The British Ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry Saturday where he was informed of the retaliatory measures. The ministry warned that it reserves the right to take other measures against Britain in the event of further hostile steps from London.

The development comes three days after British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to kick out 23 Russian diplomats allegedly operating as undeclared intelligence officers in Britain. The expulsions — the largest in three decades — "will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capabilities in the U.K. for years to come," May said.

Russian sanctions against Britain are the latest development in a standoff between the two countries over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English town of Salisbury last week, which has seen diplomatic relations reach a post-Cold War low.

Addressing the U.K. parliament on Wednesday, May laid the blame for the attempted murders squarely at Russia's door.

"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 said.

Russia has denied any involvement and said it was not responding to May's ultimatum until it received samples of the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, which British investigators say was used in the attack.

The Russian Embassy in London said the expulsion of diplomats was "totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted."

"All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-U.K. relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain," it said in a statement earlier this week.

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