Russia in the cold as U.S. and dozens of nations expel diplomats

The world is taking action over a UK nerve attack, while Kremlin denies responsibility for it.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is pictured as she arrives for a lunch meeting in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

LONDON/WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States said this week it would expel 60 Russian diplomats and close key consulates, joining governments across Europe in punishing the Kremlin for a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain that they have blamed on Moscow.

Nations also expelling Russia’s diplomats are Ukraine, France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Italy, Australia, Netherlands, Spain, Albania, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Macedonia, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Romania, Croatia and Maldova.

On Tuesday, NATO joined the movement by expelling seven diplomats from Russia’s mission to the alliance and blocking the appointment of three others.

In response, Russia has expelled 23 British diplomats and closed the British consulate in St. Petersburg and the British Council cultural body. Moscow will also expel at least 60 staff from U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, RIA news agency quoted Russian Sen. Vladimir Dzhabarov as saying.

RIA also quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry source as saying: “The response will be symmetrical. We will work on it in the coming days and will respond to every country in turn.”

This week’s wave of expulsions followed EU leaders saying last week that evidence presented by May of Russian involvement in a nerve agent attack in London was a solid basis for further action.

Moscow has denied being behind the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern English city of Salisbury. Skripal, 66, and Yulia Skripal, 33, were found unconscious on a public bench in a shopping center on March 4 and remain critically ill in hospital.

“We assess that more than 130 people in Salisbury could have been potentially exposed to this nerve agent,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May said.

Saying Britain had evidence Russia has investigated ways of distributing nerve agents for assassinations, May welcomed the show of solidarity as 100 Russian diplomats were being removed, the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the height of the Cold War. She called it the “strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law.”

Australia confirmed it was expelling the two Russian diplomats identified as undeclared intelligence officers, citing Russia’s “reckless and deliberate conduct.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Twitter Monday “extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever and will help defend our shared security.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the expulsions a “provocative gesture.” A Kremlin spokesman said the West was making a “mistake” and that President Vladimir Putin would make a final decision about Russia’s response.

A car with diplomatic plates is parked in front of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The staff expelled by Washington includes 12 people identified by the United States as intelligence officers from Russia’s mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York. They were involved in activities outside their official capacity and an abuse of their privileges of residence, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called it “a very unfortunate, very unfriendly move.”

President Donald Trump also ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle because of its proximity to a U.S. submarine base and planemaker and defense contractor Boeing, a senior U.S. official said. Seattle was a hub of Russian cyberespionage, both political and commercial, according to two U.S. intelligence officials.

The Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

The envoys and their families have been given a week to leave the United States, according to one U.S. official. Australia has issued the same deadline to its expelled diplomats.

Trump, who before he took office in January last year promised warmer ties with Putin, last week congratulated the Russian leader on his re-election, drawing criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike. Trump said the two leaders had made tentative plans to meet in the “not too distant future.”

He did not bring up the poisoning attack in his phone call with Putin.

“The president wants to work with the Russians but their actions sometimes don’t allow that to happen,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told a news briefing. “The poisoning in the U.K. that has kind of led to today’s announcement was a very brazen action. It was a reckless action.”

U.S. lawmakers largely welcomed Trump’s move on Monday.

Washington had already imposed sanctions on Russian citizens and firms for U.S. election meddling and cyberattacks but put off targeting oligarchs and government officials close to Putin.

U.S. officials said the scale of the expulsions was based not only on the expansion of Russian espionage in the United States, but also on its increasing focus on critical infrastructure targets such as electrical grids, financial networks, transportation and health care.

Skripal’s poisoning, which Britain said employed the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent Novichok, is the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.

The Kremlin has accused Britain of whipping up an anti-Russia campaign and has sought to cast doubt on the British analysis that Moscow was responsible.