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British Prime Minister Expels 23 Russian Diplomats After Poisoning Of Ex-Spy


Today, British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from the UK. This is in response to the poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter in western England.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: This represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. It must, therefore, be met with a full and robust response.

SHAPIRO: The prime minister said Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent developed in Russia. They are still hospitalized in critical condition. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is covering this story and joins us from London. Hi, Joanna.


SHAPIRO: How did the prime minister justify the expulsion of the 23 Russian diplomats?

KAKISSIS: Well, the prime minister said the failure of Moscow to explain the use of this Russian nerve agent to poison the Skripals is evidence of culpability. So now the prime minister says she needs to send a stronger message. Theresa May wants to affect Russia's intelligence gathering capability on British soil. Britain has actually tried that before back in 2006. Russian diplomats were expelled over the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the former intelligence agent who died after being attacked with radioactive polonium. So four diplomats were expelled then, and it didn't seem to change anything. I mean, there were, like, 14 suspicious deaths of Russian exiles in the U.K. since then. So now the prime minister needs to send a stronger message to make sure Russia's espionage network takes a hit by expelling what she calls undeclared intelligence agents.


MAY: This will be the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years, and it reflects the fact that this is not the first time that the Russian state has acted against our country. Through these expulsions, we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the U.K. for years to come.

SHAPIRO: Joanna, do the experts you were talking to think that this response is strong enough?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, some commentators have said that this is really the bare minimum that the prime minister could have done, but she's not just expelling diplomats. She's not just relying on that. She's also suspending all high-level bilateral contacts between the U.K. and Russia. She says she will freeze Russian state assets if there is evidence that they may be used to threaten the property or lives of British nationals. And she's considering some kind of legislation like the Magnitsky Act in the United States, which punishes Russians who violate human rights with asset freezes and travel bans.

SHAPIRO: What's been the response from Russia?

KAKISSIS: Well, the Russian government is absolutely outraged that they're being accused of trying to kill their own nationals, Sergei and Yulia Skripal, you know, the father and daughter in Salisbury, England. Theresa May gave Moscow just 24 hours to explain the poisoning and how this Soviet-era nerve agent even got to Britain. Russia's ambassador to the U.K., Alexander Yakovenko, he said that Russia needed more time.


ALEXANDER YAKOVENKO: We have to follow the procedures of the Organisation of the Prohibition of the Chemical Weapons. And we are ready to give the answer and to provide the consultations within the 10 days.

KAKISSIS: And now everybody - you know, everyone's waiting to see if Russia will respond to today's events by expelling British diplomats from Moscow.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Joanna Kakissis, joining us from London, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is an international correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she leads NPR's bureau and coverage of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.