LONDON, U.K. - On Tuesday, 23 Russian diplomats - who were expelled by Britain in the ongoing crisis between both the countries after a former Russian spy was poisoned - left the embassy in London and headed back to Moscow.
The crisis, which unfolded earlier this month after a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughters were found to be poisoned by a rare Soviet-era nerve agent, has now become the deepest crisis in Russian-British relations since the Cold War.
Miffed at Russia’s failure to act on the ultimatum issued by Britain to explain how the soviet-era nerve agent was used to poison the former spy, the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May decided to expel 23 Russian diplomats last week.
May said that Britain was expelling 23 “undeclared intelligence agents” who have one week to leave, adding that Russian intelligence capabilities in Britain would be damaged for years.
Blaming the Russian President Vladimir Putin, May declared that either the Russian state was responsible or had lost control of a stock of the substance.
Later, outlining retaliatory measures against Russia, May also announced the potential freezing of Russian state assets that pose a security threat and new laws to counter hostile state activity.
She added that British ministers and royals would not attend the football World Cup in Russia later this year.
She also announced that the government would also cut off high-level diplomatic contact and will strengthen powers to detain suspected intelligence agents at the border.
May added that Britain would revoke an invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit.
She said checks on private flights, customs and freight would be stepped up to better track those travelling to Britain who could represent a security threat.
She also threatened action against those she described as "serious criminals and corrupt elites,” adding, "There is no place for these people, or their money, in our country."
Subsequently, U.K.’s allies expressed support for Britain’s reaction.
In a rare joint statement, the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump declared there is "no plausible alternative explanation" other than Russia being responsible.
In the statement, the leaders also described an "assault on U.K. sovereignty,” a "clear violation" of the global prohibition of chemical weapons and a "breach of international law.”
The four leaders added that Moscow must "address all questions" in relation to the attack and provide "full and complete disclosure" over the production of the Soviet-era novichok nerve agent.
They added, "We call on Russia to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council to uphold international peace and security."
Then, in reaction to the growing criticism, Russia announced a tit for tat move, with the Russian government announcing on Saturday that it is expelling 23 British diplomats.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that it is also ordering the closure of the British Council in Russia and ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate in St. Petersburg - while also threatening further measures.
The British diplomats were given a week to leave.
The ministry warned that the government could take further measures if Britain takes any more “unfriendly” moves toward Russia.
On Monday, a day after the Russian President won the country’s presidential election by a landslide vote, Kremlin said that either Britain would have to prove Russia’s role in the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter or would have to apologize to Russia.
The Russian Presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, “Sooner or later these unsubstantiated allegations will have to be answered for: either backed up with the appropriate evidence or apologized for.”
On Tuesday morning, reports noted that three buses with diplomatic number plates left the Russian embassy compound in London as embassy workers waved to the leaving diplomats.
The move was reportedly the biggest tit-for-tat expulsions since Margaret Thatcher ordered Soviet spies to leave in 1985.