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In United Front, West Expels Dozens Of Russian Diplomats Over Poisoning; Russia Vows Retaliation


Adults and children board an aircraft sent to collect diplomats and their families from Russia's embassy in London who were expelled by Britain last week after the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Now, the U.S. and other NATO allies are also expelling some Russian diplomatic staff.

The United States, European Union member states, Ukraine, and Canada have ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England -- a move the Kremlin vowed to match with "the principle of reciprocity."

The nearly simultaneous announcements on March 26 signaled a united front in the face of what Britain and other Western countries say was the use of a military-grade nerve toxin against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month.

U.S. President Donald Trump "ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian 'intelligence officers' -- including 12 at the United Nations in New York -- from the United States and the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and [plane maker] Boeing," a White House statement said.

"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 destabilizing activities around the world," the statement added.

In a Twitter post, Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, called "it the largest expulsion of Russian intelligence officers" in U.S. history.

In an interview with RFE/RL, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, said the expulsion was the "right call."

The sweeping expulsion of Russian officers from the United States also drew applause from a frequent White House critic, Senator John McCain, who called it "a welcome step forward in holding [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accountable."

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury on March 4. They remain in critical condition.

A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) and his daughter Yulia
A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) and his daughter Yulia

The Kremlin, which has denied responsibility for the attack and has already retaliated against Britain’s expulsion of 23 Russians by ordering out the same number of Britons, characterized the March 26 moves as a "mistake."

"We strongly regret the decision made by several countries to expel Russian diplomats," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Putin will make the ultimate decision on Russia’s response.

"We will be guided by the principle of reciprocity," he said.

European Council President Donald Tusk said that half of the EU’s 28 nations were expelling Russian diplomats, adding that "further expulsions within this common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks."

'Great Solidarity'

Within that framework, 31 Russians were being kicked out of EU countries, including four each from Germany, France, and Poland. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Moscow had failed to answer any of the questions around the attack nor shown a willingness to play a constructive role in clarifying the circumstances around it.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said 18 countries have announced plans to expel more than 100 Russian intelligence officers, adding the coordinated action 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 continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values," she told parliament.

"President Putin's regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond," May said.

Three Russian diplomats were being expelled by the Czech Republic and Lithuania; two from fellow EU members Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Italy; while Hungary, Sweden, Croatia, Romania, Finland, and Estonia announced plans to expel one Russian diplomat. Latvia also said it would expel a Russian diplomat, plus a representative of a blacklisted Russian company.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said late on March 26 that his country will announce "appropriate" action on March 27 to "show solidarity with our closest neighbor."

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a message on Twitter that the "extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security."

"Russia cannot break international rules with impunity," he added.

House Speaker Ryan (Republican-Wisconsin) told RFE/RL in Prague 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."

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At the UN in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the United States was expelling 12 Russian UN diplomats because of action they had taken outside their official capacity that was an abuse of their privileges of residence.

"When we see these espionage tactics that are taking place right here at the heart of the UN, we can't have that. This is really not just us but multiple countries saying all of these actions have to stop," Haley told reporters.

In Washington, a White House spokesman said the United States would like to have a "cooperative relationship" with Russia but actions like Moscow's alleged "brazen" attack on the ex-Russian spy in Britain prevented that.

"Our relationship with Russia is frankly up to the Russian government and up to Vladimir Putin and others in senior leadership in Russia," Raj Shah told a news briefing.

Ukraine, which is not an EU member, said it would expel 13 Russian diplomats and reiterated that its diplomatic ties with Russia "are de facto frozen" because of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia once again confirmed its dismissive attitude not only to the sovereignty of independent states, but also to the value of human life," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement, adding that sanctions against Moscow should be tightened further.

'Despicable, Heinous Act'

Canada said it was also expelling four Russian diplomats who have been identified as intelligence officers or individuals who used diplomatic status to undermine the country’s security or interfere with its democracy.

Ottawa added that it was denying the applications of three more Russians seeking to become diplomatic staff.

“The nerve agent attack in Salisbury, on the soil of Canada's close partner and ally, is a despicable, heinous, and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

Norway, Albania, and Macedonia were also among non-EU countries to announce plans to kick out Russian diplomatic staff.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced early on March 27 that he was expelling two Russian diplomats who he said were undeclared intelligence officers. He said it was "reckless" for Russia to commit "the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II."

Iceland said its leaders will not attend the World Cup in Russia this summer, and announced a "temporary postponement of all high-level bilateral dialogue with the Russian authorities."

In a statement on March 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the expulsions would not help "find those who are guilty" in the poisoning.

The ministry accused "Britain's allies" of "blindly following the principle of Euro-Atlantic unity at the expense of common sense."

"It is self-evident that this unfriendly step by this group of countries will not pass without a trace, and we will react."

Skripal, 66, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of treason in 2006 after a court found that he passed the identities of Russian intelligence agents to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents uncovered in the United States in one of the biggest spy swaps since the Cold War.

He and his daughter fell ill one day after Yulia Skripal, 33, arrived on a visit from Moscow, where she had been living.

With reporting by RFE/RL Correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AP, dpa, and BBC.
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