WASHINGTON: The United States ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and the shuttering of the Russian consulate in Seattle in response to Moscow’s suspected involvement in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England, AP news reported on Monday.
Sixteen EU countries including Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland also expelled envoys, alongside Canada, Ukraine, Norway and Albania.
In the sternest move yet against Russia since he became President, Donald Trump’s White House said it was working with Nato allies to punish Russia for its suspected poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia and the “unacceptably high” number of Russian spies in the US.
The European Council president Donald Tusk meanwhile said the bloc’s expulsions were a “direct follow-up to last week’s European Council decision” in which it “condemned, in the strongest possible terms, the recent attack in Salisbury”.
The White House said in a statement: “The United States takes this action in conjunction with our Nato allies and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilising activities around the world.
“Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security. With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.”
It added: “The United States stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behaviour.”
Mr Trump has been criticised over a telephone call with Vladimir Putin, during which he ignored advice from his officials and congratulated the Russian leader on his recent election victory. He also failed to raise Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election and the Salisbury poisoning.
Theresa May has previously said that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Mr Skripal and his daughter. The couple remain in a critical condition in hospital. The Prime Minister yesterday told the Commons that more than 130 people could have been exposed to the novichok nerve agent and that 50 people were assessed in hospital.
According to Reuters, senior Trump administration officials said all 60 Russians were spies working in the US under diplomatic cover, including a dozen at Russia’s mission to the UN in New York.
The expelled Russians will have seven days to leave the US, said the officials. They added that the Seattle consulate is a counter-intelligence concern because of its proximity to a US Navy base.
The US actions came as more than a dozen nations, including those in Russia’s neighbourhood, either announced, or were expected to announce similar steps. Poland summoned Russia’s ambassador for talks and its foreign ministry was among several in Europe planning news conferences.
In a “special announcement” to reporters on Monday afternoon European Council president Mr Tusk confirmed that EU countries were taking “common” measures to expel Russian diplomats.
Ukraine, which is not a member of the EU, also separately announced it would kick out 13 diplomats, alongside Albania and Canada.
Mr Tusk said more measures – including further expulsions – could follow in the coming days and weeks. He reiterated that the “European Council agreed with the United Kingdom Government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation.”
Germany, France and Poland, Lithuania, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Czech Republic are among EU member states expelling officials.
“We decided to recall the EU ambassador to Russia for consultations. As a direct follow-up to last week’s European Council decision to react to Russia within a common framework, already today 14 member states have decided to expel Russian diplomats,” Mr Tusk said. Several other EU states added their names to the list on Monday.
He added: “Additional measures including further expulsions within the common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks.”
A spokesman for the Kremlin said the decision to expel the Russian diplomats was a mistake. He added that Mr Putin would make the final decision over his country’s response to the measures.
Britain has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats, accusing them of being undeclared intelligence agents, which led Russia to expel the same number of British diplomats. The European Union has already recalled its ambassador to Russia.