Britain plans to expel 23 Russian diplomats it says are undeclared spies and suspend all high-level contact with Moscow, in the first retaliation for suspected Russian involvement in the attack on double-agent Sergei Skripal.

Theresa May, the UK prime minister, told parliament that the expulsions were the largest for more than 30 years and would “fundamentally degrade” Russia’s intelligence ability in the UK for years to come. She added that no ministers or members of the royal family would attend this summer’s football World Cup in Russia.

Russia had shown “complete disdain” for the investigation into the attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and provided “no explanation” for having an undeclared chemicals weapons programme in breach of international law, she told MPs.

Shortly before she spoke, the Russian ambassador in London, Alexander Yakovenko, said that Britain’s response was “absolutely unacceptable” and “a provocation”.

The nerve agent attack on the Skripals has plunged relations between Russia and the UK to a new post-Cold War low.

The UK had given Moscow a deadline of midnight on Tuesday to provide a “credible response” after identifying one of its nerve agents had been used in the attack. Kremlin officials responding by denying Russian involvement, demanding samples of the chemical in question, and threatening retaliation against British diplomats.

On Wednesday, the UK received backing from other Nato countries, which expressed “deep concern at the first offensive use of a nerve agent on Alliance territory” since Nato was founded in 1949.

Allies said Russia should “address the UK’s questions, including providing full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons”.

The UN Security Council is due to discuss the matter later on Wednesday, after the UK made an urgent request to update members on the investigation into the Salisbury attack. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, also said he was ready to put the issue on the agenda for next week’s European Council meeting.

The Foreign Office sought to put the attack in Salisbury in an international context, saying it followed “a well-established pattern of Russian aggression”, including incursions on Georgian sovereignty and a cyber attack on the German parliament.

Mrs May’s statement followed a meeting of the UK’s National Security Council on Wednesday morning.



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