MOSCOW — Russia said Friday that it will expel British diplomats and halt high-level meetings with the U.K. in an increasingly global standoff over the nerve agent attack on an ex-spy — but still isn't saying who will be kicked out or when.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said to expect a Russian response "shortly" to Britain's expulsion of Russian diplomats and accused Britain of violating international law and "common sense." Russia's foreign minister said Britain's defense minister "lacks education."
Geopolitical tensions are mounting since the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month, in what Western powers see as the latest sign of increasingly aggressive Russian meddling abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Putin's expected re-election Sunday for another six-year term.
"We have never encountered this level of discussion on the global stage," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, saying he's been surprised by the British reaction.
Accusing the Russian state of the nerve agent attack, Britain is expelling 23 Russian diplomats and is trying to build a coalition of countries to punish Moscow as a result.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said that Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull joined her in condemnation of the attack. In an unusual joint move Wednesday, the U.S., France and Germany also pointed the finger at Russia.
The source of the nerve agent used — which Britain says is Soviet-made Novichok — is unclear. A report in the Telegraph says it was put in the suitcase of Skripal's daughter before she left Russia for Britain to see her father.
Russia denies being the source of the nerve agent, suggesting it could have been another country, and has demanded Britain share samples collected by investigators.
Russia's envoy at the international chemical weapons watchdog says the nerve agent used could have come from U.S. or British stockpiles. Alexander Shulgin, Russia's envoy at the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in televised remarks that Britain and the United States both had the nerve agent used.
An 83-year-old Russian whistleblower who helped develop Novichok said in an interview published Friday that a few countries in the world have laboratories powerful enough to develop the nerve agent thanks to a formula he published in 2008.
Vil Mirzayanov, who now lives in New Jersey, is quoted in Novaya Gazeta as saying it's unlikely the nerve agent came from another former Soviet country as Russians have suggested. Mirzayanov said he revealed the existence of Novichok because he thought it was necessary to deprive Russia of its "deadly secret."
He also said he thinks the Skripals, who are in critical condition, have little chance of surviving.
Lavrov said Friday that Russia will "of course" expel British diplomats and that he hopes the Skripals recover soon so light can be shed on what happened.
May severed high-level contacts with Moscow and vowed actions against Russian dirty money and "hostile state activity." Downing Street called the attack "an unlawful use of force' by the Russians against the U.K."
Russia's ambassador to Britain said Friday the 23 expulsions will reduce staff at the embassy by about 40 percent. Alexander Yakovenko said on Russia-24 television it will have a "serious impact" on the embassy's work.
The war of words between Moscow and London continued Friday, with Lavrov lashing back at British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson for saying Russia "should go away and shut up."
"Perhaps he also wants to go down in history with some loud statements. ... I don't know, perhaps he lacks education," Lavrov told a news conference after talks on Syria's war with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts.
The leader of Britain's main opposition party says the government shouldn't rush to blame Moscow for the nerve agent poisoning of a former spy. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a newspaper column that politicians must not "rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police." Corbyn said in the Guardian that it's possible that "Russian mafia-like groups," rather than the Russian state, were responsible.