Russia to expel 60 US diplomats in retaliation for response to spy poisoning

PHOTO: Pigeons take off from wires in front of the Russian Foreign Ministry building, in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2018.PlayAlexander Zemlianichenko/AP
WATCH Russia to expel 60 US diplomats in retaliation for response to spy poisoning

Russia has said it will expel 60 U.S. diplomats and close the American consulate in St. Petersburg as part of a tit-for-tat retaliation against the coordinated wave of expulsions of dozens of Russian diplomats ordered by the United States and other countries earlier this week over the poisoning of a former spy in Britain.

Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov promised that Moscow would carry out similar tit-for-tat expulsions against the over two dozen other countries that have said they will throw out Russian diplomats since Monday

Speaking at a news conference, Lavrov said that the U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. had been summoned to Russia's foreign ministry be informed of the measures and served with a note of protest over the U.S.'s expulsions.

PHOTO: Pigeons take off from wires in front of the Russian Foreign Ministry building, in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Pigeons take off from wires in front of the Russian Foreign Ministry building, in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2018.

Fifty-eight staff from the U.S. embassy in Moscow and two from its consulate in Ekaterinburg will be declared "persona non grata" and must leave Russia before April 5, Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. The ministry said it was giving the U.S. two days to move out of the St. Petersburg consulate.

Russia is expelling the same number of diplomats as the U.S. did on Monday when it also closed Russia's consulate in Seattle as part of the coordinated expulsions intended to show solidarity with the U.K. over the poisoning of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury at the beginning of March.

Twenty-seven countries, mostly European Union and NATO members, have said they will send home at least 152 Russian diplomats since Monday.

Lavrov promised that Russia would take the same "symmetrical" approach with those countries, promising to expel the same number of diplomats from each of their embassies as they had expelled Russians.

"For the other countries everything will also be symmetrical," Lavrov said, adding that "for now that is all." He said that the expulsions directed against Russia were "absolutely unacceptable" and said they had been "taken under the toughest pressure of the U.S. and Britain under the pretext of the so-called Skripal case."

PHOTO: A Russian flag flies atop the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Seattle, March 26, 2018. Lindsey Wasson/Reuters
A Russian flag flies atop the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Seattle, March 26, 2018.

The U.K. and others have accused the Kremlin of bearing responsibility for the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, using what they say was a military grade nerve agent produced by Russia. But Russia has denied involvement, accusing the U.K. and the U.S. of using the attack as part of a campaign to smear Moscow. Russians officials have suggested that the U.K. and U.S. might have staged the attack themselves and demanded they present more evidence of Russia's involvement.

On Thursday, Lavrov also said that Russia had called for an extraordinary session of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to take place next week on April 5 to discuss the Skripal case. Lavrov said Russia was calling the session "to secure a normal conversation, to establish the truth."

The U.K. has already called in the OPCW to analyze the nerve agent used in the poison attack. The U.K. has said the nerve agent was a so-called Novichok type of nerve agent, a type of nerve weapon developed secretly by the Soviet Union intended to be more potent and harder to detect. Russia has issued a series of conflicting denials around Novichok agents, with some officials insisting no such program ever existed despite extensive evidence that it did.

The latest round in the diplomatic confrontation came as doctors in England said that Yulia Skripal's condition was "rapidly improving" and that it was no longer critical but "stable," raising the possibility that she might recover.

Earlier on Thursday, Russia's foreign ministry attacked the U.K. for allegedly refusing to allow it access to Yulia, who is still a Russian citizen. The ministry has said it is "very concerned" about her health.

The clash over the spy poisoning is one of the most serious since the end of the Cold War, with the breadth of the expulsions unprecedented. The latest round began with the U.K. expelling 23 over the poisoning, with Russia responding in kind last week.

It comes as the U.S. and Russia have already gone through a series of bruising tit-for-tat diplomat expulsions in the past two years. In December 2016, the Obama administration threw out 35 Russians and seized two diplomatic facilities as punishment for Moscow's meddling in the presidential election that year.

After initially holding back, the Kremlin later responded in summer 2017 by ordering the U.S. to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by over 700, reducing it by more than half and forcing the U.S. to significantly scale back operations at its consulates. The Trump administration then retaliated to that by ordering Moscow to close its consulate in San Francisco.

In its statement on Thursday, Russia's foreign ministry said it suggested the U.S. "think and stop rash actions" that might harm the two countries' relations further. It also warned U.S. authorities against seizing any Russian state assets in America, saying that would lead "to the further serious degradation in our relations, with extremely grave consequences for global stability."

PHOTO: Policemen stand guard outside the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 29, 2018. Anton Vaganov/Reuters
Policemen stand guard outside the building of the consulate-general of the U.S. in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 29, 2018.