By Anna Smolchenko with Marina Koreneva in Saint Petersburg
Agence France Presse
Russia expelled diplomats from 23 countries Friday in a wave of retaliatory measures against the West in a spy row, the biggest wave of tit-for-tat expulsions in recent memory.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that it had summoned the heads of missions from 23 countries earlier to tell them that some of their diplomats had to leave the country.
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 and Lithuania.
The moves are in retaliation to a 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 Skripal 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 Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The Russian foreign ministry also gave Britain a month to cut its number of diplomatic staff in Russia to the same number as Russia has in Britain.
In Britain, the government 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 the Britain’s Foreign Office said, calling the latest developments “regrettable.”
“Russia is in flagrant breach of international law and the Chemical Weapons Convention and actions by countries around the world have demonstrated the depth of international concern,” she said.
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.
The diplomats had earlier been seen arriving at the Russian foreign ministry in flagged official cars.
The ministry had said in a terse statement that they would be “handed protest notes and told about the Russian side’s retaliatory measures.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow would respond with “tit-for-tat” measures, but they might “not only” be symmetrical.
The Kremlin insisted on Friday that Russia had not started the diplomatic war with the West.
“Russia did not unleash any diplomatic war,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Russia never initiated any exchange of sanctions.”
‘Get out of here’
On the streets in Saint Petersburg, passersby said they welcomed the decision to shut down the US consulate 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 marks 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 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 royals to the 2018 football World Cup hosted by Russia.
Russia then responded by closing a British consulate in Saint Petersburg and closing the British Council educational and cultural organization.