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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

US to expel 60 Russian diplomats over spy poisoning

Action is part of a coordinated show of diplomatic pressure on Russia along with 15 EU nations

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), and President of the European Council Donald Tusk (R) see things differently on the spy poisoning case / AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C), and President of the European Council Donald Tusk (R) see things differently on the spy poisoning case / AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB

The United States said it would send 60 diplomats home as part of a coordinated international effort by 18 countries to punish Russia for the poisoning of a former double agent on UK soil.

As part of the measures, President Donald Trump's government ordered the closure of Russia’s consulate in Seattle, Washington, because of its proximity to US security interests, according to a White House statement. It also includes suspected spies at Russia’s mission to the United States.

The announcement was part of a coordinated response by Nato and British allies, with 15 EU nations expelling envoys, according to British Prime Minister Theresa May. More than 100 diplomats will be expelled in total.

On Tuesday, Australia’s government followed suit and also ordered two Russian diplomats to leave the country. The two diplomats, “identified as undeclared intelligence officers,” have been ordered to leave within seven days “for actions inconsistent with their status” under the Vienna Conventions, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office said.

Mrs May told parliament that the move represented the “largest collective expulsion” of Russian officials in history.

Speaking in Bulgaria, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, said that “additional measures including further expulsions... are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks”.

The White House said the closure of the Seattle consulate was because of its close proximity to submarine and aircraft carrier facilities in the Pacific north west and Boeing, one of the country’s most leading aerospace and defence contractors.

“With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make it clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” according to a White House statement.

“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.”

Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said the measure would destroy what little remained of US-Russia relations.

Moscow received no formal notification from Washington before the expulsion of its diplomats and Russia’s response will be based on the “reciprocity principle”, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, Tass reported.

Mr Trump last week spoke to Mr Putin by phone to congratulate him on Sunday’s election, against the advice of his advisers.

The mass expulsions was welcomed in the UK after Mrs May lobbied EU leaders last week to back the strong measures taken by London. It expelled 23 Russian diplomats nearly two weeks ago, the largest expulsion for more than three decades.

The EU issued a joint statement that backed the UK’s assessment that it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the first nerve agent attack on EU soil since the foundation of the bloc and there was no alternative plausible explanation.

The diplomatic manoeuvres followed the poisoning earlier this month of Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia. They were attacked with nerve agent and may not recover, according to court papers.

Mr Skripal was living in Salisbury, southern England, after being exchange in a 2010 spy swap after a Russian spy ring was unmasked in the United States.

Mr Trump had initially been seen as being only lukewarm in support of the UK’s condemnation of Russia, but the actions on Monday went beyond the expectations of most analysts.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats was an extraordinary international response by our allies” and show that “Russia cannot break international rules with impunity”.

Both France and Germany said on Monday that they would expel four diplomats with further measures announced by countries including Poland, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia and non-EU members Ukraine and Canada.

“The expulsion of four diplomats is a strong signal of solidarity with Great Britain and signals the resolve of the Germany government not to leave attacks against our closest partners and allies unanswered,” the Germany foreign ministry said.

It said the move was also a response to cyber attacks against German government networks that it claimed were probably carried out by Russia.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on her Facebook page that the expulsion of Russian diplomats from EU countries as “loyal lip service to the UK”, Sputnik reported.