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US, EU expel Russian diplomats over UK nerve agent attack

The order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia’s mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York.

world Updated: Mar 27, 2018 08:41 IST
Yashwant Raj and Prasun Sonwalkar
In this file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks about the spending bill as Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a press conference at the White House. US President Donald Trump has authorized the expulsion of 60 alleged Russian spies from the United States in response to a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy in the English city of Salisbury.
In this file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks about the spending bill as Vice President Mike Pence looks on during a press conference at the White House. US President Donald Trump has authorized the expulsion of 60 alleged Russian spies from the United States in response to a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy in the English city of Salisbury.(AFP File Photo)

The Donald Trump administration on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomatic and intelligence officers posted in the United States and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle in retaliation for the nerve agent attack on a former double agent in Britain.

The expelled officials have seven days to leave the country with their families. Of the 60, 48 are from the Russian embassy in Washington and the remaining 12 from Russia’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York.

The Russian consulate in Seattle was ordered to be closed, the United States has said, due to its proximity to US submarine bases and to Boeing, which manufactures civilian and military aircraft.

The US said these actions were coordinated with its Nato allies and partners around the world. Within hours, 14 European Union countries, Canada, Ukraine, Sweden and Albania had announced their own expulsions.

These actions are the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”, British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons. Britain had expelled 23 Russian officials on March 14.

The UK and its allies accuse Russia of being involved in the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4. The two, who are still critical, were poisoned with a rare military-grade nerve gas called Novichok.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, holding Russia directly responsible for the attack, 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 destabilising activities around the world.

“With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” she said.

In a separate but simultaneously released statement, European Council President Donald Tusk announced similar expulsions by 14 member countries of the European Union and said “additional measures, including further expulsions … are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks”.

May called the expulsions a show of solidarity, “We welcome today’s actions by our allies, which clearly demonstrate that we all stand shoulder to shoulder in sending the strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law,” said a statement from No 10, Downing street.

Russia has denied any role in the poison attack and is expected to retaliate to these expulsions. It had earlier ejected 23 British diplomats as a tit-for-tat over London’s move.

May had briefed the European Council in Brussels last week on the case against Russia as the Foreign Office lobbied western countries on its assessment that Moscow was behind the poisoning of former Russian spy and his daughter Yulia.

The expulsions by the United States are the toughest action taken against Moscow yet by President Donald Trump whose 15 months in office have been dogged by allegations that members of his campaign colluded with Russian meddling in the elections, that was intended to help him win.

Earlier March, the Trump administration announced sanctions against 17 Russian entities and individuals for meddling in the 2016 elections, that included those indicted by the team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller III that is investigating the interference.

Last August, the Trump administration had ordered the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and annexes in New York and Washington in retaliation against Kremlin ordering the US to cut its diplomatic staff in Moscow by 755 employees, which, in turn, was triggered by sanctions announced against Russia by US congress for election meddling.

This predictable cycle of expulsions and retaliatory actions was broken only once before in recent memory, in December 2016 when Moscow led pass the expulsion of 35 Russian intelligence operatives by then President Barack Obama, over poll interference.

Michael Flynn, then NSA-designate, had asked Moscow to desist, assuring it clandestinely, it has been revealed during congressional investigation of the meddling, that the sanctions would be “ripped up” as one of the first acts of the administration.