PRAGUE -- The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives said President Donald Trump made the "right call" in deciding to expel dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy on British soil.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (Republican-Wisconsin) made the comments in a March 26 interview with RFE/RL in Prague less than an hour after the White House announced the expulsion of 60 Russian "intelligence officers" and the closure of Russia's consulate in Seattle.
Numerous EU member states, Canada, and Ukraine almost simultaneously also announced expulsions of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who remain in critical condition in Britain.
"I think it was the right call. This is done in solidarity with our allies in Britain. I think it's fantastic that other European nations, including the Czech Republic right here, followed suit as well," Ryan said of the U.S. action.
"I think it was an entirely appropriate action to take," added Ryan, who met with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis on March 26.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal were discovered unconscious on a bench in the southern English town of Salisbury on March 4. Britain says they were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent and, along with its allies, has blamed Russia.
The Kremlin denies involvement and has suggested that the United States, Britain, or other countries could have been the source of the toxin. It said Russia would be "guided by the principle of reciprocity" in response to the expulsions announced on March 26.
Asked whether it was premature to expel Russian diplomats given that the ongoing British investigation into the poisoning -- and evidence that nerve agents were sold on the black market in Russia in the 1990s -- Ryan told RFE/RL that "the evidence is fairly clear in this particular case."
"I think the British have made their case pretty clear," he added. "And this is something that Russia has been doing, and this is something that we think that Russia has done. This should not be tolerated. This is not something that civil nations do."
British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that there was "no alternative conclusion, other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens."
The poisoning of Skripal and his daughter has raised comparisons with the 2006 poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in London. A British inquiry found that Russia’s government was responsible for Litvinenko’s death by a radioactive isotope, though Moscow denies involvement.
Ryan said that during his meetings with officials in Prague, he intends to raise the case of a suspected Russian hacker accused of a massive 2012-13 breach of U.S. companies, including LinkedIn.
The cybercrime suspect, Yevgeny Nikulin, is currently in Czech custody and is at the center of an extradition tug-of-war between Russia and the United States. A Czech court has ruled that he can be extradited to either country.
Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikan, who will make the decision on where to send Nikulin, has said that Czech President Milos Zeman -- known for his relatively pro-Kremlin views -- has advocated handing the suspected hacker over to Russia.
"Of course I’ll raise this issue," Ryan said. "It is a high priority of our government, simply because we want to respect the rule of law. And we have every bit of confidence that the Czech government will respect the rule of law."
Nikulin, who has been in Czech custody since October 2016, denies the U.S. allegations. His lawyers have said that he will not receive a fair trial in the United States and should be returned to Russia, where he is suspected of online theft involving around $2,000.
'Calling Russia On It'
Ryan told RFE/RL that he supports ratcheting up sanctions on Russia, accusing Moscow of attempting to "sow chaos" and "undermine democracy" in the United States and elsewhere.
Russia has repeatedly rejected Washington's allegations that it conducted a hacking-and-propaganda campaign aimed at influencing U.S. elections.
"It is something that cannot and should not be tolerated by Western democracies. And so that is why it is important for us to call Russia on it," Ryan told RFE/RL.
Trump has repeatedly said he wants better ties with Moscow, and he triggered bipartisan criticism recently over his decision to congratulate Putin on his reelection in a March 18 presidential ballot that opponents called nothing more than democratic window dressing.
But Trump has left in place U.S. sanctions targeting Russia for its 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine -- policies launched under his predecessor, Barack Obama.
He has also hit Russia with new sanctions, though critics have accused him of failing to sufficiently carry out congressionally mandated punitive measures against Moscow.
Mueller Probe 'Assurances'
Ryan repeated his assertion last week that he had received "assurances" that there were no plans to fire U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating both the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was collusion between Russia and Trump associates.
Trump has been fiercely critical of Mueller's probe, insisting that his campaign did not collude with Russia.
Ryan said he does not believe it's necessary to pass legislation to protect Mueller's Russia investigation -- a position Republican members of Congress voiced last week.
"You are getting into constitutional issues with respect to powers of the executive branch versus powers of the legislative branch. I won’t go into that debate other than to say: We must respect the rule of law, [Mueller] should be allowed to do his job, and I have absolutely no reason to believe they are even considering firing him," Ryan told RFE/RL.