Countries to expel more than 150 Russian diplomats over nerve attack in Britain

VIDEO: REUTERS
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, NYTIMES, AFP, WASHINGTON POST) - The United States joined Britain, other European allies and Australia in expelling dozens of diplomats in solidarity over a nerve agent attack earlier this month in Britain.

A total of 151 Russian diplomats from 27 countries were being removed, the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War.

Most countries have opted for one or two diplomats, a symbolic move that is unlikely to significantly disrupt Russian intelligence activities. Ukraine is removing 13; Nato, seven; Canada, France, Germany and Poland, four each; and the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Moldova three each. 

In Europe, even countries that normally pursue Russia-friendly policies, such as Hungary and Italy, joined the action as a sign of solidarity with Britain, a marker of just how disturbing they found the attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has forged an increasingly close alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Turkey could not take steps against Moscow “based on an allegation”.

US President Donald Trump on Monday (March 26) ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians, including 12 spies, from the United States and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle.

The expulsions are the toughest action taken against the Kremlin by Trump, who has been criticised for not being firm enough with Putin.

Russian leaders have said they will respond to the expulsions, although they have not announced specific plans.

“We know for certain that this is the result of colossal pressure and colossal blackmail that, regrettably, is Washington’s main instrument in the international arena today,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Uzbekistan on Tuesday, Interfax reported.

Fourteen European Union countries expelled Russian diplomats, EU President Donald Tusk announced, after the bloc last week sided with Britain in blaming Moscow over the poisoning of  Skripal and his daughter in England on March 4.

Hungary’s foreign ministry said on Monday it had decided to expel from the country a Russian diplomat whom it said was involved in spying. 

“Based on what was said at the session of the European Council, Hungary is expelling a Russian diplomat, who also performs espionage activities,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement to news agency MTI that was later posted on the government’s website.

Australia will expel two Russian diplomats, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday (March 27).

“Together with the United Kingdom and other allies and partners, Australia is taking action in response to the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury, UK,” Turnbull announced in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted that “Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever and will help defend our shared security.” 

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the coordinated measures “clearly demonstrate that we all stand shoulder to shoulder in sending the strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law”.  

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the actions a “provocative gesture” and promised to respond.

“The last time that the United States expelled so many Russian spies was when the Reagan administration ordered 55 Soviet diplomats out of the country in 1986,” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. 

“This US solidarity with Britain and other European allies after the Skripal poisoning is unprecedented in the post-Soviet era and highlights the continuing downward spiral of Russia’s relations with the West,” she said. 

Moscow has denied responsibility for the March 4 attack on Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia in the sleepy English city of Salisbury. Skripal, who sold secrets to Britain and moved there in a 2010 spy swap, remains in critical condition along with his daughter.

The poisoning, alleged to have employed the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok, is the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.

"Today President Donald J. Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing," 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."

RUSSIA VOWS TO REACT

The US order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia's mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York and reflects concerns that Russian intelligence activities have been increasingly aggressive, senior US administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Russians and their families have seven days to leave the United States, according to officials. 

Russia's foreign ministry vowed to react to the expulsions, and accused Western governments of blindly following their British ally into confrontation with Moscow. 

The ministry said in a statement that it viewed the expulsions as an unfriendly act and a provocative gesture. 

“The provocative gesture of solidarity with London by these countries, who have bowed to the British authorities in the so-called Skripal affair and did not bother to understand the circumstances of what happened, is a continuation of the confrontational path to escalation,” the statement said. 

“Britain’s allies ... are blindly following the principle of Euro-Atlantic unity, to the detriment of common sense, the norms of civilized international dialogue, and the principles of international law.”

“It goes without saying that this unfriendly act by this group of countries will not go without notice and we will react to it,” the statement said. 

Russian UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called it “a very unfortunate, very unfriendly move”, adding they had to leave by April 2.

Interfax news agency quoted a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament as saying Russia will expel at least 60 staff from US diplomatic missions in the country. The agency did not say on what the parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house, based his assertion. Government officials have yet to comment.

Britain previously expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning, raising tensions between the two countries to a level not seen since the heights of the Cold War. The government vowed to crack down on Russian spies, corrupt elites and ill-gotten wealth in Britain. 

On March 15, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organisations and individuals for interference in the 2016 presidential election and other “malicious cyberattacks,” its most significant action against Moscow until Monday. 

Those sanctions came as the United States joined Britain, France and Germany in denouncing Russia for its apparent role in the nerve-gas attack on British soil, calling it a “clear violation” of international law. 

Trump has said that, despite its denials, Russia was likely behind it. “It looks like it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on March 15, adding that he had spoken with Britain's May. 

“We are in deep discussions,” Trump continued. “A very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen. And we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”

Trump has been slower to act than leaders in Britain, France and Germany over the attack.  White House officials called the nerve agent used against the Skripals “military grade,” but declined to elaborate on the substance used.