Russia to expel diplomats and close US consulate in St Petersburg over response to Salisbury spy poisoning

US State Department says 'Russia should not be acting like a victim' as it reviews possible actions in response

Oliver Carroll
Moscow/Washington DC
,Alexandra Wilts
Thursday 29 March 2018 19:25
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US Department of State: there is 'no justification' for Russia's response to expulsions

Russia has said it will expel diplomats and close the US consulate in St Petersburg in retaliation to the coordinated international response over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

More than two dozen countries, including the US and many EU nations – as well as Nato - have ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out this week in a show of solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury earlier this month.

The UK has accused Russia of responsibility for the attack, during which it claims the Skripals were exposed to a class of nerve agent called novichok. Russia has denied being involved and its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that all expulsions will be responded to in kind.

Mr Lavrov said that US Ambassador Jon Huntsman was summoned to the Foreign Ministry where he was given notice that Russia is replicating the US decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out. Mr Lavrov added that Moscow will also retaliate to the decision by Washington to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle by closing the US consulate in St Petersburg.

The tit-for-tat expulsions come as no surprise. But the shuttering of the American consulate in Russia’s second city is an escalation. The Seattle consulate is Russia’s smallest diplomatic outpost in the US.

Fifty-eight of the US officials are based in Moscow, with another two general consulate officials in the eastern city of Yekateringburg. They have been declared persona non grata and have been told to leave Russia by 5 April. The US Consulate in St Petersburg has two days to suspend operations, according to Russian media.

During the briefing Mr Lavrov accused Britain of “forcing everyone to follow an anti-Russian course” and that they were “making mockery of international law”. Russia has called for a meeting with the executive council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to ask questions to “establish the truth”, he said.

“The measures would be reciprocal ... They include expulsion of the equivalent number of diplomats and they include our decision to withdraw our agreement to allow the United States’ general consulate to operate in St Petersburg,” Mr Lavrov said.

Trailing the decision earlier in the day, the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia newspaper said that the foreign ministry had debated closing consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. In the end, the recommendation was St Petersburg – considered more significant to US interests – although the final word would naturally come from President Vladimir Putin.

The US State Department said there is “no justification” for the expulsions from Russia. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that while it was not surprising, Moscow’s reaction was a “regrettable, unwarranted action”.

Ms Nauert said that she expected the Russian Foreign Ministry to expel diplomats from up to 28 different countries, but ”Russia should not be acting like a victim”.

She added that it was clear Moscow is “not interested in having good relations with other countries”. The US, meanwhile, is reviewing further options in terms of a response to the latest moves by the Kremlin.

Salisbury nerve agent attack: Sergei Skripal and daughter were poisoned with novichok on their front door

Traditionally, Russia’s response to what it deems to be dangerous actions by a foe – whether military or diplomatic – has been to escalate quickly. The calculation has always been that the opponent will fold first. Usually, they do.

The initial UK response to the Salisbury poisoning seemed to build that understanding into their sanctions, offering what many considered to be no more a mild tap on Russian wrists. The expulsion of 23 diplomats allegedly involved in intelligence activity was certainly less than many expected. Russia responded as expected by raising the stakes – bringing the British Council and Consulate in St Petersburg into the equation.

But the subsequent collective action by Western countries has taken Moscow by surprise. And things may be about to get worse for the Kremlin, with the UK government this week raising the possibility of banning the sale of Russian sovereign bonds in London. Speaking to journalists on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that such a move would hit London more than Russia. “These decisions can not but harm the reputation of such countries in terms of their relationship with other investors,” he said.

Scotland Yard believe Mr Skripal and his daughter first came in contact with the nerve agent that poisoned them at his home, with the highest concentration of the novichok nerve agent found at his front door. The Skripals were later found unconscious on a park bench and have been patients at Salisbury District Hospital ever since. Yulia is said to be “improving rapidly” but Sergei remains in a critical but stable condition.

The hospital's medical director Dr Christine Blanshard reported "an improvement" in the condition of Yulia Skripal.

“She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day.... I want to take this opportunity to once again thank the staff of Salisbury District Hospital for delivering such high quality care to these patients over the last few weeks,” she said.

The latest expulsions by Moscow will do little to quell fears of a new cold war, as raised by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday.

The current situation was potentially more dangerous than the darkest days of superpower conflict, Mr Guterres said. Not only are there now more players involved in the conflict, but but there are fewer communication channels to stop problems from escalating. That, he told reporters, made him "very concerned."

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