MOSCOW • Russia said it is expelling 60 US diplomats and closing the US Consulate in St Petersburg, and will retaliate in kind to other countries that ousted its envoys after the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that the measures against the United States "include the expulsion of the same number of diplomats" as the Russian envoys ordered out by President Donald Trump.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also summoned Mr Laurie Bristow, Britain's ambassador, who was told London had just one month to cut its diplomatic contingent in Russia to the same size as the Russian mission in Britain. It was not immediately clear if that meant a serious cut in staff numbers.
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said Russia's response was regrettable and that Moscow was in flagrant breach of international law over the nerve agent attack on Mr Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia - the first known use of a military-grade nerve agent on European soil since World War II. Russia rejects Britain's accusation that it was behind the attack.
While the Kremlin's latest action underscores the tense relations between Washington and Moscow, the use of a customary tit-for-tat response suggested that President Vladimir Putin is not looking to escalate the situation.
But the US quickly dismissed the notion that Russia was entitled to take mirror-image action.
"There is no justification for this response" because Russia was "responsible for that horrific attack on the British citizen and his daughter", State Department spokesman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington yesterday.
She said the US is not ruling out further action against Russia.
Russia had vowed retaliation after the US, Nato and 25 allies, including Germany and France, expelled about 130 Russian diplomats this week in support of Britain, which kicked out 23 Kremlin envoys on March 14.
While the scale of the coordinated action was unprecedented, the decision of Paris and Berlin to limit expulsions to four diplomats each, in contrast to the 60 ordered out by the US, has stoked expectations in Russia that France and Germany still want to work with Mr Putin.
Russian officials have been careful to cast the confrontation as one with the US and Britain, rather than with Europe as a whole.
"The Kremlin is confident that it could reach a deal with Europe if not for the malicious influence of the US and UK," said Professor Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met US Ambassador Jon Huntsman and handed him a note of protest against the "revolting and groundless" demands from the US authorities for 60 Russian diplomats to leave the country, the Foreign Ministry said on its website.
Fifty-eight US diplomats will have to leave the Moscow embassy, and two at the US Consulate in Ekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city in Russia, were declared persona non grata. They will have to leave Russia by this Thursday, according to the statement.
If further "hostile actions" against Russian diplomatic and consular offices in the US continue, additional steps will be taken against its staff and facilities in Russia, the ministry said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also summoned yesterday the representatives of a "raft of countries" that had taken action against Russia in solidarity with Britain. Embassy officials from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Belgium, Ukraine, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the Czech Republic were all seen arriving in their official cars at the Foreign Ministry building in Moscow.
Among those nations whose diplomats were shown the door were Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Spain, Croatia and Ireland.
Meanwhile, the hospital where Ms Yulia Skripal, 33, is being treated said on Thursday that she was getting better after spending three weeks in a critical condition due to the nerve toxin attack. Her father, 66, remains in a critical but stable condition. The BBC, citing "separate sources", reported yesterday that Ms Skripal was "conscious and talking".