In an address to the House of Commons on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England. The diplomats, who the British government has identified as undeclared intelligence officials, have been given just one week to leave the country. The expulsion would be the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats from the UK in more than 30 years.
The Skripals were discovered unconscious on a park bench, and remain hospitalized in critical condition.
In a previous address delivered on Monday, May had vehemently denounced the poisoning as a “reckless and despicable act.” She revealed that independent experts had established that the Skripals had been poisoned by a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” The nerve agent was identified as belonging to a family of chemical weapons called Novochoks. The Soviet Union originally developed the Novochok agents, which are multiple times more lethal than sarin gas and notoriously difficult to detect, during the Cold War for use against NATO troops. To experts’ knowledge, however, it had never been deployed until the Salisbury incident.
Because Novochok chemical agents can so easily be traced to Russia, May stated in her address that there exist only two possible interpretations of the incident – either it constituted a “direct act by the Russian State against our country,” or the Russian government “lost control” of the nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of rogue actors. May primarily advanced the former interpretation, noting that the Salisbury incident occurred against “a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression,” a pattern which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“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, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey,” May said.
The Kremlin has repeatedly insisted that it had “no motive” to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and that any action on the UK’s part will provoke “retaliatory measures.” On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced May’s actions as “political theater.” Russia also ignored a March 13th midnight deadline, imposed by May, to explain how the Novochok agent got from Russia into England.
At the 87th Council Executive Session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Peter Wilson, the UK’s Permanent Representative, cautioned that a less than robust response from the international community to the Salisbury incident would contribute to the erosion of international norms against chemical weapons use. “All of us in this room should be aware: if the norm against chemical weapons use continues to be eroded, if we don’t stand up to enforce the fundamental tenets of the Convention, what has happened in the United Kingdom could happen in any one of our countries,” Wilson said. “Those who have used chemical weapons cannot be immune from the consequences of their actions. We must all do all that we can to bring perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks to justice, whoever they are, and wherever they may be.”