Moscow – Russia expelled diplomats from 23 countries on Friday in retaliation against the West in a spy row, in the biggest wave of tit-for-tat expulsions in recent memory.
The Russian foreign ministry said it had summoned the heads of missions from 23 countries – almost all of them European Union member states – to tell them that some of their diplomats had to leave.
The diplomats from France, Canada, Germany, Australia and other countries were earlier seen arriving at the Russian foreign ministry in flagged official cars.
France, Germany and Poland each said that Russia was expelling four of their diplomats. Among the other countries that had similarly been told to pull their envoys were the Netherlands, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania and Norway.
Thirteen Ukrainian diplomats should also leave Russia.
The moves came in retaliation for the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats by Britain and its allies over a nerve agent attack against former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4.
“This is certainly not a surprise,” Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said through a spokeswoman, referring to Moscow’s expulsion of two of the country’s diplomats.
Blok called upon Russia to cooperate with the ongoing investigation into the attack by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The Russian foreign ministry also gave Britain a month to cut the number of diplomatic staff in Russia to the same number Russia has in Britain.
In Britain, the government called the latest developments “regrettable” but remained adamant that Russia was in the wrong.
“This doesn’t change the facts of the matter: the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable,” a spokeswoman for Britain’s Foreign Office said.
Russia also said it reserved the right to respond to the recent expulsion of Russian diplomats by Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro.
In the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin presided over a meeting of the country’s Security Council which discussed the most recent retaliatory steps against Britain and its allies.
The Kremlin insisted it was not Russia that had started the diplomatic war with the West.
“Russia did not unleash any diplomatic war,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Russia never initiated any exchange of sanctions.”
On Thursday, Moscow had announced that it would expel 60 US diplomats and close the US consulate in Saint Petersburg after the expulsion of its own diplomats and the closure of one of its US consulates.
In all, more than 150 Russian diplomats have been ordered out of the US, EU members, NATO countries and other nations which are accusing Russia of being involved in the Skripal poisoning.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow would respond with “tit-for-tat” measures, but they might “not only” be symmetrical.
‘Get out of here’
On the streets in Saint Petersburg, passersby said they welcomed the decision to shut down the US consulate general in the city.
“This is great news,” said Viktor Glushko, 60.
“It is about time. Relations will not get worse because they were never good and we will get by without them.”
Another man shouted: “Get out of here!” as he passed by the US consulate where staff were seen loading plastic sacks into vehicles Friday.
In Washington, the State Department said Thursday there was no justification for the Russian move and that the United States “reserves the right to respond”.
“It’s clear from the list provided to us that the Russian Federation is not interested in a dialogue on issues that matter to our two countries,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said of the expelled diplomats.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Russia’s expulsion of US diplomats marked a “further deterioration” in relations.
Yulia ‘improving rapidly’
The hospital where Skripal and his daughter are being treated said Thursday that Yulia, 33, was “improving rapidly and is no longer in a critical condition”, while 66-year-old Sergei remained in a critical but stable condition.
Britain has said it is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack using the Novichok nerve agent developed in the Soviet Union, but Russia has angrily denied any involvement.
Russia said 58 diplomats from the US embassy in Moscow and two from the consulate in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg have to leave Russia by next Thursday.
The US consulate general in Saint Petersburg will have to be vacated by Saturday.
Moscow warned that it could take further measures in response if Washington “continued hostile actions” against the Russian embassy and consulates.
After the poisoning, Britain reacted by announcing it would expel 23 Russian diplomats, suspend high-level diplomatic contact with Moscow and not send any members of the royal family to the 2018 football World Cup hosted by Russia.
Russia then responded by closing a British consulate in Saint Petersburg and the British Council educational and cultural organisation.