The United States and more than a dozen European nations have kicked out Russian diplomats, with the Russian consulate in Seattle ordered closed, as the West punished Moscow’s alleged role in the poisoning of an ex-spy in the UK.
Warning of an “unacceptably high” number of Russian spies in the US, the Trump administration said 60 diplomats would be expelled – all said to be Russian intelligence agents working under diplomatic cover.
The group includes a dozen posted to Russia’s mission to the United Nations who were engaged in “aggressive collection” of intelligence on American soil, officials said.
The move is one of the most significant actions Donald Trump’s administration has taken to date to punish Moscow and Russian president Vladimir Putin, especially over its intelligence activities.
The last time they spoke, less than a week ago, Mr Trump congratulated Mr Putin for his re-election but did not raise the March 4 spy poisoning, Russia’s alleged election-meddling in the US or its own tainted voting process, prompting dismayed critiques even from Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans.
“This is the largest expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in United States history,” said US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.
The American penalties were echoed by announcements in European capitals across the continent, including those in Russia’s backyard. All told, 18 countries are ousting more than 100 Russian spies, in addition to 23 already kicked out by the UK.
The list included at least 16 European Union nations, with more likely to follow. Germany, Poland and France each planned to remove four, the Czech Republic three and Italy two. Ukraine, a non-EU country with its own conflicts with Moscow, is expelling 13 Russians, President Petro Poroshenko said. All three Baltic states said they would kick diplomats out. Canada, too, said it was taking action, kicking out four and denying three who have applied to enter the country.
Almost all of the countries said publicly that the Russian diplomats they were expelling were actually spies.
The expulsions led to a chorus of condemnation for the Kremlin – for the poisoning, Russian spying and other Western grievances. Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz called it “the right response to the unfriendly, aggressive actions of Russia”.
In the Czech Republic, where Russian officials have claimed the poison may have originated, Prime Minister Andrej Babis dismissed that allegation as “an utter lie”.
Russia’s embassy in Washington responded to the decisions on Twitter by hinting at retaliation, asking its followers to vote on which US consulate should be closed: St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or Vladivostok.
Russia’s Consulate General in Seattle must close by April 2. The facility is a particular counter-intelligence concern to the US because of its proximity to a US Navy base, senior US officials said.
US ambassador Nikki Haley, Mr Trump’s envoy to the UN, said: “The United States and many of our friends are sending a clear message that we will not stand for Russia’s misconduct.”