Russia retaliated against Britain on Saturday by expelling 23 British diplomats after Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Moscow for the “brazen” poisoning of one of Moscow’s ex-spies and ordered Russian diplomats to leave Britain.
Tensions between the two nations have now reached Cold War-era levels of frostiness.
The diplomatic snit stems from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, who were found unconscious on a park bench in a shopping area in Salisbury, England, on March 4. They remain in a critical condition.
A Russian lawmaker blamed Britain Saturday for the escalating tensions. Konstantin Kosachev, the had of the foreign affairs committe in the upper house of the Russian parliament told The Associated Press, “This is not our choice, definitely. We have not raised any tensions in our relations, it was the decision by the British side without evidence.”
Britain’s foreign minister Boris Johnson said Friday it was “overwhelmingly likely” President Vladimir Putin directly ordered the attack. British officials say military-grade nerve agent was used.
“Our quarrel is with Putin’s Kremlin, and with his decision, and we think it is overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second World War,” Johnson told reporters in the British capital.
Britain has cancelled high-level bilateral contact with the Kremlin and May on Wednesday gave 23 Russian diplomats a week to leave Britain.
Moscow strongly denied any involvement in the poisoning and called Johnson’s remarks “shocking” and “inexcusable.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said the diplomats in Moscow have one week to leave. It also ordered the closure of the British Council, a public information and educational center, in Russia, and halted the reopening of a British consulate in St. Petersburg.
Top diplomats from the European Union are expected to discuss next steps in the Skipals’ case on Monday, with some calling for a boycott of the upcoming World Cup in Russia. May seeks a global coalition of countries to punish Moscow.
Leaders from the United States, Germany and France have already joined the U.K. in accusing Russia of being behind the attack in a statement this week. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg followed that up Friday by saying that the incident reflected a Russian “pattern of reckless behavior” that includes cyberattacks and election meddling.
In a separate action, the Trump administration issued sanctions on a number of Russian entities for a wide range of behavior, including attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Russia will hold a presidential election of its own on Sunday, which Putin is widely expected to win. He has already been in power 18 years and could stay until 2024.
Sergei Skripal moved to Salisbury after being jailed for passing Russian state secrets to British intelligence while working for the Russian government in the 1990s. His daughter, who lives in Moscow, was visiting him when the pair fell ill.
British police said Friday 131 people were exposed to trace amounts of the military-grade nerve agent, Novichok, used in the assault. None have shown any symptoms.
Britain says the nerve agent could only have come from a government source. Russia has asked to be allowed to examine the evidence and claims that so far it has not been allowed to do so.
Police have also launched a murder investigation into the death of Nikolai Glushkov, a Russian businessman who was found dead in his London home on Tuesday. Glushkov was strangled.
While there is no evidence yet to link his killing to the Skripals’ case, police said they were “keeping an open mind” because of Glushkov’s nationality and his association with Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch and Putin critic who died under disputed circumstances in 2013. Glushkov had convictions for money laundering and fraud and is the former deputy director of Russia’s state airline, Aeroflot.
© 2018 USA Today
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.