International desk: US President Donald Trump on Monday (March 26) ordered the expulsion of 60 Russians from the United States and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle over a nerve agent attack earlier this month in Britain.
The expulsions are the toughest action taken against the Kremlin by Trump, who has been criticised for not being firm enough with President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Fourteen European Union countries likewise expelled Russian diplomats, EU President Donald Tusk announced, after the bloc last week sided with Britain in blaming Moscow over the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England on March 4.
They were joined by former countries of the Soviet bloc including Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic.
The US order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Russia’s mission to the United Nations headquarters in New York and reflects concerns that Russian intelligence activities have been increasingly aggressive, senior US administration officials told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Russians and their families have seven days to leave the United States, according to officials.
Moscow has denied responsibility for the March 4 attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, the first known offensive use of a nerve toxin in Europe since World War II.
“Today President Donald J. Trump ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and Boeing,” the White House said in a statement.
“The United States takes this action in conjunction with our Nato allies and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilising activities around the world.
“Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security. With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences.”
In Moscow, Interfax news agency quoted a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament as saying Russia will expel at least 60 staff from US diplomatic missions in the country in response to Washington’s decision to expel Russian diplomats.
The agency did not say on what the parliamentarian, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house, based his assertion. Government officials have yet to comment.
Britain previously expelled 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning, raising tensions between the two countries to a level not seen since the heights of the Cold War. The government vowed to crack down on Russian spies, corrupt elites and ill-gotten wealth in Britain.
On March 15, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a series of Russian organisations and individuals for interference in the 2016 presidential election and other “malicious cyberattacks,” its most significant action against Moscow until Monday.
Those sanctions came as the United States joined Britain, France and Germany in denouncing Russia for its apparent role in a nerve-gas attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil, calling it a “clear violation” of international law.
Trump has said that, despite its denials, Russia was likely behind it. “It looks like it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office on March 15, adding that he had spoken with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain.
“We are in deep discussions,” Trump continued. “A very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen. And we’re taking it very seriously, as I think are many others.”
Trump has been slower to act than leaders in Britain, France and Germany over the attack. White House officials called the nerve agent used against the Skripals “military grade,” but declined to elaborate on the substance used.
EX-SOVIET BLOC JOIN CHORUS OF EXPULSIONS
Ukraine meanwhile announced on Monday it will expel 13 Russian diplomats. The decision was taken “in the spirit of solidarity with our British partners and transatlantic allies and in coordination with EU countries,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement.
Lithuania said it would expel three Russian diplomats; Latvia said it would expel one diplomat; the Czech Republic three, and Poland four.AFP.