Moscow will respond harshly to a US decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has said, but added that it was still open to strategic stability talks with Washington.
The US said on Monday it would expel 60 Russian diplomats, 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.
More than 20 western allies have ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity with the UK that represents the biggest concerted blow to Russian intelligence networks in the west since the cold war.
More than 100 Russian diplomats alleged to be spies in western countries are being told to return to Moscow, in a coordinated response to the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official, and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury on 4 March.
In a sombre statement in the House of Commons on Monday, Theresa May welcomed what she said was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.
“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, Nato and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident,” the prime minister said. “And together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia’s continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values.”
On Monday, the Russian government called the expulsions “a provocative gesture” and said it would retaliate in kind, raising the prospect of further tit-for-tat expulsions, as the US and Europe left the door open for additional measures.
The Kremlin said Vladimir Putin would make the final decision, and the Russian embassy in the US launched a poll on Twitter asking which US consulate in Russia should be closed.
The US has ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian officials who Washington says are spies, including a dozen based at the United Nations, and told Moscow to shut down its consulate in Seattle, which would end Russian diplomatic representation on the west coast.
The 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, and Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands two each. Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Sweden and Romania each expelled one Russian. Iceland announced it would not be sending officials to the World Cup in Russia.
Albania, an EU candidate member, ordered the departure of two Russians from the embassy in Tirana. Macedonia, another EU candidate, expelled one Russian official.
Canada announced it was expelling four diplomatic staff serving in Ottawa and Montreal who the Canadian government said were spies. A pending application from Moscow for three more diplomatic posts in Canada is being denied.
Australia confirmed that it too would expel two Russian diplomats who were in the country as undeclared intelligence officers, giving them seven days to leave.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesperson, told reporters on Monday that the US expulsions were part of “a coordinated effort”. He added that Donald Trump “spoke with many foreign leaders, European allies and others and encouraged them to join with the United States in this announcement”.
Shah described the expulsions as “an important message to send to Russia and significant to degrading their intelligence capabilities”.
By the close of the day a small “coalition of the unwilling” inside the EU had indicated to the UK Foreign Office that they were not prepared to expel any Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK. The eight countries were Portugal, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Luxembourg. Belgium and Ireland made no announcements but have indicated action will be taken after cabinet meetings.
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning, and Russia responded by ejecting the same number of British diplomats.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing the expulsions as “an unfriendly step” based on alliances rather than evidence.
“The provocative gesture of the so-called solidarity of these countries with London, which blindly followed the British authorities in the so-called Skripal case and which never got around to sort out the circumstances of the incident, is a continuation of the confrontational policy to escalate the situation,” the statement said.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian.