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Countries always knew about Russian spies, but Putin crossed the line with U.K. attack: experts

Click to play video 'British police say nerve agent poisoned Russian ex-spy, daughter' British police say nerve agent poisoned Russian ex-spy, daughter
WATCH: British police are treating the incident in which former Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned as attempted murder by a nerve agent – Mar 7, 2018

Over two dozen countries have expelled 130 Russian diplomats in response to a toxin attack on a double agent working in the U.K., but experts say the dramatic response goes beyond this one incident.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a substance that was later determined to be part of the Novichok group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union’s military in the 1970s and ’80s. Russia has been blamed for the attack, though it has repeatedly denied any part in the incident.

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Hundreds urged to wash clothes after UK nerve agent attack – Mar 11, 2018

“Really, the issue is frustration with the Russian government that’s bubbling over in a number of issues,” said Matthew Light, a professor with the University of Toronto.

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“It’s kind of a signal that the Russia government doesn’t take Western government seriously, and thinks it can act with impunity. It’s not a secret that Russia and western governments are having a very difficult relationship these days,” Light said.

Spies expelled. Why kick them out now?

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland recently commented on the incident, saying that the four spies to be expelled from Canada “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.”

These statements have brought forward questions about why, if the Canadian government is aware that Russian intelligence agents were operating in Canada, they’ve yet to be expelled before now.

READ MORE: Russia calls expulsion of diplomats a ‘provocative gesture,’ promises response to ‘unfriendly step’

Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven, explained that espionage and intelligence-collection is an expected practice between nations. However, governments around the world are getting frustrated with Russian President Vladimir Putin regularly committing acts of aggression outside accepted, inconspicuous norms.

“Espionage is expected but you don’t kill people. Furthermore, he’s killed people in a way that’s now endangered public health,” Schmidt explained, referring the toxic agent used to poison Skripal.

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White House condemns nerve agent attack on ex-Russian spy in UK – Mar 12, 2018

This understanding is the same reason why the United States, while expelling 60 Russian spies, is giving 40 others the freedom to remain in the country.

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Retired Army Col. Christopher Costa told Business Insider that the United States is well aware that Russian spies have come to the country under the guise of being diplomats, because American operatives have been sent to Russia on the same mission.

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Schmidt concluded that the recent mass exodus of diplomats is largely intended make clear to Putin’s administration that actions such as these will not be tolerated by the West.

Putin’s history of breaking the rules of the “spy game”

Despite intelligence collection being an accepted part of international relations, experts argue that Putin’s tactics have continuously pushed Western governments beyond where they’re willing to go.

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“Putin has broken international norms,” Schmidt said. “He has broken the rules of the spy game with a series of murders in the U.K. The murders themselves crossed the line, but this is a level of litany that breaks another standard. It’s a signal,” Schmidt said.

READ MORE: Trudeau, Trump discuss Russian spy attack, NAFTA in phone call

As the expulsions have ramped up, government statements focus on “unity,” and “solidarity,” against a leader who seems to be sending a message that he will act “with impunity,” Light explained.

The Russian government has been linked to a series of blatant murders in the U.K. over the past decade, notably Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent who was working for the British government. Litvinenko was killed in 2006 with radioactive polonium-210.

READ MORE: Russia expels 23 British diplomats in response to accusations in nerve agent attack

Furthermore, both American House Speaker Paul Ryan and Canada’s Freeland referred to other run-ins with Russia as contributing to the decision respond so aggressively.

Ryan spoke extensively about the “cyberwarfare” Russia waged on the U.S. by attempting to interfere in the 2016 election, while Freeland has made specific references to the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine as a key factor.

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It’s unclear whether any additional action will be taken against Russia at this time, though Putin has called the expulsions “unfriendly” and has promised to retaliate.

-With files from Reuters and the Associated Press.