US President Donald Trump has expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in the United States, following the poisoning of a Russian former double agent in Britain.
Trump on Monday ordered 60 Russian diplomats that Washington considers spies to leave the country in solidarity with Britain over the alleged nerve-agent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, and closed Russia’s consulate in Seattle, senior administration officials said.
The officials said all 60 Russians were spies working under diplomatic cover, including a dozen at Russia’s mission to the United Nations.
They said the expulsions meant to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the “unacceptably high” number of Russian intelligence operatives in America.
The expelled Russians have been given seven days to leave the US, said the officials. Twelve were accredited to the United Nations in New York.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, welcomed the move. “Here in New York, Russia uses the United Nations as a safe haven for dangerous activities within our own borders,” she said.
The move, one of the most significant actions the Trump administration has taken so far against Russia, comes amid escalating tensions between the West and Russia over the poisoning of Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, in a British town.
The Skripals were found unconscious on March 4 on a bench in the British city of Salisbury. They remain hospitalized in critical condition.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Washington and its allies were acting “in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom.”
London claims the Soviet-designed Novichok nerve agent has been used to poison the pair and points the finger at Russia.
Moscow has rejected the claims as “absurd,” saying the substance used in the attack could have originated from the countries studying it, including Britain itself. It has offered cooperation with London in probing the case.
Less than a week ago, Trump phoned Putin to congratulate the Russian leader for his re-election but did not raise the spy case, renewing criticisms he is too soft on Moscow.
14 EU states to expel Russian diplomats
Meanwhile, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, made a short statement in Bulgaria on Monday, saying 14 EU states were also expelling Russian diplomats over the UK spy case.
France said it would expel four Russian diplomats, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said his country would expel 3 Russian diplomats; Poland said it was expelling four and Ukraine announced the expulsion of 13 diplomats. Italy said two Russian diplomats must leave the country by the end of the week.
Denmark and the Netherlands also announced later in the day that they had ordered the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from their respective countries. Finland — a Russian grand duchy until 1917 — said it was expelling one. Sweden also said it was expelling one Russian diplomat.
Canada said the four Russian diplomats in the country were intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, and that they were being expelled “in solidarity with the United Kingdom.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday that the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats from the EU, the US and Canada was a message against Russian “attempts to flout international law.”
“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, NATO, America and beyond… Together, we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia’s continue attempts to flout international law and undermine our values,” she told the British parliament.
Earlier in the day, Britain’s defense secretary said Putin was trying to divide the UK from its allies, but the world stood united behind Britain in a “powerful message to the Kremlin.”
“The world’s patience is rather wearing thin with President Putin and his actions, and the fact that right across the NATO alliance, right across the European Union, nations have stood up in support of the United Kingdom… I actually think that is the very best response that we could have,” Gavin Williamson said in Tallinn, Estonia.
The UK has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the alleged nerve attack, a move that prompted Moscow to expel 23 British diplomats.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “this unfriendly step by this group of countries will not go unnoticed.”
The Kremlin said it regretted the decision by Western governments to expel Russian diplomats
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters that President Putin would make the final decision about how Russian would respond to the expulsions.
Peskov reiterated that Moscow is innocent in the poisoning of the Skripals.
“We very much regret these decisions. The reason that is being given for them is the so-called Skripal case. We have already said and we repeat this again: Russia did not and does not have anything to do with this case,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency TASS.
On Saturday, the Kremlin had said it was extremely uncomfortable with the recent stance by European countries.
“It’s a big discomfort for us to have unpredictable and aggressive counterparts. But this is the reality we have to live with,” Peskov was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying.