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26 Mar

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

 

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US orders expulsion of 60 officials as 14 EU member states plus Ukraine announce coordinated response to nerve agent poisoning

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with the nerve agent novichok in Salisbury.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with the nerve agent novichok in Salisbury. Photograph: web

The US and EU have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack in the UK.

The US has ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian officials who Washington says are spies, including a dozen based at the United Nations.

EU members Germany, France and Poland are each to expel four Russian diplomats with intelligence agency backgrounds. Lithuania and the Czech Republic said they would expel three with Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands expelling two each.

Ukraine, which is not an EU member, is to expel 13 Russian diplomats and Canada four.

The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning, and Russia responded by ejecting the same number of British diplomats.

Russia promised it would take reciprocal action against Washington. It said the UK had not presented a single fact proving that Moscow was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.

The Russian consulate in Seattle is also being closed as part of the US’s package of punitive measures. A senior US official said that the consulate closure and the expulsions would be carried out “in solidarity with our closest allies” in reaction to what he said was “a reckless attempt by the [Russian] government to murder a British citizen and his daughter with a military grade nerve agent”.

A second official said the measures were also intended as a response to a “steady drumbeat of destabilising and aggressive actions” by Moscow against the US and its allies.

The officials being expelled from the US include 48 in the Russian embassy in Washington and 12 at the Russian mission at the UN, who the US say are spies, engaged in “aggressive collection here in the US”.

US officials said that the spies at the UN were abusing their residence privileges under the UN headquarters agreement. They added that there were over 100 Russian spies in the US and the expulsions would significantly reduce Russian espionage capabilities in the country. The expelled Russians have seven days to leave the country.

“With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” the White House said in a written statement. “The United States stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behaviour.”

However, Donald Trump did not comment himself on Twitter, his usual form of expression on issues he feels strongly about. At the time officials were briefing reporters about the US measures, the president put out a tweet saying: “So much Fake News. Never been more voluminous or more inaccurate. But through it all, our country is doing great!”

It was not clear what reports Trump was responding to, but the tweet came at a time when a porn star, Stormy Daniels, was dominating national headlines with her latest interview about an affair she said she had with Trump, and the pressure she came under to cover up the relationship.

While other members of his administration have spoken out strongly against Russia, in particular for its interference in the 2016 US election, Trump has avoided saying or tweeting anything critical of the Kremlin, and congratulated Putin on winning an election generally seen as unfree and unfair.

White House officials had initially been reluctant to attribute direct blame to Moscow, in the days following the Skripal attack, but a senior administration official said on Monday that the nature of the Russian response to UK allegations held led to the definitive US conclusion that the Kremlin was responsible.

“Russia has had nearly a month to respond but instead of explaining has engaged in the usual obfuscation we have seen in the past,” a US official said, noting that Moscow had put out a series of conflicting stories and attempted to put the blame on others, including the US.

EU heads of state concluded last week that it was highly likely the Russian state was responsible for the attack. The EU is also looking at coordinated steps to rein back Russian hybrid warfare.

The European Council president, Donald Tusk, said 14 EU states had expelled Russian diplomats in response to the attack, adding that “additional measures including further expulsions are not excluded in coming days, weeks.”

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was expected to win the support of her newly formed coalition government to take practical action, even though over the weekend many prominent German politicians called for a rapprochement with Russia, including a suggestion that Putin be invited back to summits of the G7. Russia was expelled from the premier assembly of western economies following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but still attends the G20.

The divisions within the EU were highlighted by a split at the top of the EU bureaucracy. Tusk said he was in no mood to congratulate Putin on his re-election as Russian president, but the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, sent Putin a note of strong congratulations.

The EU called its ambassador to Moscow for consultations over the weekend.

The UK defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, visiting British troops in Estonia, said the backing for Britain was in “itself a defeat for President Putin”.

Theresa May will report back to MPs on Monday on her efforts to garner international support for an uncompromising approach to Russia. On Wednesday, the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee will hold a special evidence session designed to consider what further steps the government could take to restrict the movement of Putin-linked Russian money in London.

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