03/26/2018 10:21 EDT | Updated 03/26/2018 17:22 EDT

Canada Expelling Russian Diplomats After Nerve Agent Attack In U.K.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said it was a despicable act.

The Canadian Press
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 22, 2018.

OTTAWA — Four Russian spies based in Canada have been ordered out of the country as Western governments seek to condemn the Kremlin's alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian agent and his daughter in Britain.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the expulsions Monday as the U.S. and more than a dozen European allies took similar actions against dozens of Russian diplomats in their own countries.

The scope of the mass expulsions appears to be unprecedented since the Cold War; British Prime Minister Theresa May said a total of more than 100 Russian diplomats in 18 countries had been told to go home.

The move follows the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British city of Salisbury on March 4 by what has been described as a military-grade nerve agent.

The two remain in critical condition in hospital; a British police officer who found the two unconscious on a bench outside a shopping centre was also hospitalized, but has since been released.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack on Skripal, who served as a double agent for British intelligence before he was arrested by Russian authorities and later transferred to the United Kingdom in a spy swap.

But Western governments have nonetheless blamed Russia for what Freeland described in a strongly worded statement as a "despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds.

Diplomats based in Ottawa and Montreal

"The nerve-agent attack represents a clear threat to the rules-based international order and to the rules that were established by the international community to ensure chemical weapons would never again destroy human lives."

The four Russians ordered out of Canada are based in Ottawa and Montreal, Freeland said, and are either intelligence officers or "have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada's security or interfere in our democracy."

The minister did not provide further details, including the nature of their activities or why the Russians had been permitted to stay in Canada if they posed a threat to the country.

U.S. officials estimated Monday there are currently more than 100 Russian intelligence officers in the U.S., according to the New York Times.

The British government last week expelled 23 Russian diplomats in response to the attack on Skripal, and Freeland said Canada was acting in solidarity with its ally.

The U.S. announced it was expelling 60 Russians while Germany, France, Poland and more than a dozen other European countries were also taking action.

"These measures are not aimed at the Russian people, with whom Canadians have long and fruitful ties," she added. "Canada remains committed to dialogue and co-operation with Russia on issues where we face common challenges."

This isn't the first time Canada has expelled a Russian diplomat; such measures weren't uncommon during the Cold War while a handful have been ordered out since the current tensions between the West and Russia began in 2014.

Canada's move 'unfriendly': Russian foreign ministry

But most recent expulsions have typically involved one or, at most, two Russians and they have remained relatively low-key affairs, without the type of language or co-ordination involved in Monday's mass action.

The Russian foreign ministry protested the moves Monday, calling them "unfriendly" and a "provocative gesture" while accusing British authorities of failing to apprehend the real perpetrators behind Skripal's poisoning.

"It goes without saying that this unfriendly move by this group of countries will not go unnoticed and we will respond to it," the ministry added in a statement.

Russia expelled 23 British diplomats last week in response to London's decision to kick out 23 Russians, and has typically adopted a tit-for-tat approach when it comes to such expulsions.