The United States on Monday ordered 60 Russian diplomats it accuses of being spies to leave the country within a week. A dozen allies, including France, Germany and Poland, also are making similar moves in a concerted response to the March 4 nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in Britain.
The U.S. move, along with the closure of a Russian consulate in the country, is in response to Moscow’s “outrageous violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and breach of international law,” according to the State Department.
Britain and several other countries and NATO also blame Russia for carrying out the chemical attack.
Russia has been sounding “a drum beat of destabilizing and aggressive actions,” said a senior U.S. official, explaining the White House actions.
The United States is ordering the closure, by April 2, of Russia’s consulate in the Pacific port city of Seattle in the state of Washington, noting its close proximity to the Boeing aircraft plant and the Kitsap Naval Base, the home port for U.S. Navy nuclear submarines.
The consulate is “part of this broader problem of an unacceptably high number of Russian operatives in the United States and “we are prepared to take additional steps, if necessary,” a senior administration official told reporters shortly before Monday morning’s announcement.
“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 destabilizing activities around the world,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement.
“The United States stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behavior,” Huckabee Sanders added in her statement.
President Donald Trump, who spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin last Tuesday, has been involved in the discussions to expel the diplomats, according to officials.
“This is absolutely his decision,” emphasized a senior U.S. official in Monday’s call with reporters.
Trump had not called Putin to inform him of the action, but rather Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov was told of it on Monday morning by the State Department, according to the official.
The expulsion order covers 48 Russians at embassies and consulates in the United States and 12 assigned to Moscow’s mission at the United Nations in New York City who “abused their privilege of residence,” according to a senior U.S. official.
“Our actions are consistent with the United Nations Headquarters Agreement,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in a statement.
All of those being expelled are considered spies who “hide behind the veneer of diplomatic immunity while engaging in espionage activities,” according to a senior administration official.
If Russia retaliates against the United States for the expulsions, Washington could take further action, according to a senior U.S. official, hinting that some of the dozens of other suspected Russian spies allowed to remain in the country could face similar action.
Former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a park bench in the English town of Salisbury and rushed to the hospital, where they remain in serious condition.
British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a series of reprisals against Russia over the poisoning, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.
Moscow denies any involvement and expelled an equal number of British officials from Moscow.
Germany and Poland both say they have asked four Russian diplomats to leave, while in Lithuania, three Russian diplomats were ordered to leave. British Prime Minister May said Monday at total of 18 countries have announced they are expelling more than 100 Russian intelligence officers in response to the nerve agent attack.