Russia to expel 60 US diplomats, close St. Petersburg consulate

The move came in retaliation for the response to the Sergei Skripal poisoning case
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 21, 2017.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 21, 2017.

MOSCOW – Russia will close the American consulate in St. Petersburg and kick out 60 U.S. diplomats in response to Monday’s coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States and a number of European countries, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.

The move continues an ongoing escalation of tit-for-tat between Moscow and the West that began in early March with the alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil with a Soviet-designed nerve agent.

Lavrov said that U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been asked to appear at the Foreign Ministry – “where my deputy minister Sergei Ryabkov will lay out for him the content of these retaliatory measures against the United States,” he said.

Lavrov did not specify the number of U.S. diplomats to be expelled, but the Interfax news agency quoted a Russian foreign ministry official as saying that 58 American diplomats from the Moscow embassy and two from the consulate in St. Petersburg have been declared persona non grata. The United States expelled 60 Russians on Monday,

The two other American consulates in Russia, in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, will not be affected.

On March 14, British Prime Minister Theresa May ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow rebuffed an earlier demand to explain how a Soviet-designed and Russian-produced nerve agent known as novichok came to be used in Britain.

Last week, 10 of Britain’s allies, including the United States, agreed to coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats, believed to be intelligence officers, from their respective countries. The movement grew this week to include 27 countries. A tally by the Associated Press put the total number of expelled Russian diplomats at more than 150.

“All [measures] regarding the number of people who will have to leave the Russian Federation […] will also be mirrored with respect to other countries,” Lavrov said. “This is the situation as of now.”

The United States raised the stakes in its response Monday by expelling 60 Russian diplomats and taking the additional step of ordering the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. The number of expulsions in other nations was mostly in the single digits.

Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have maintained that Moscow had nothing to do with the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the British town of Salisbury on March 4.

Both Skripals remain hospitalized. British authorities on Thursday said Yulia was showing signs of recovery, while her father remained in serious but stable condition. A police officer who came in contact with the substance was also hospitalized but has since recovered.

Speaking before Parliament on Monday, May said that about 130 British citizens came in contact with the substance. May also said that Russia has offered up 21 different arguments concerning the use of the novichok agent.

Those arguments have ranged from denials that novichok ever existed, to accusing other former Soviet satellites of producing it. The only thread linking Russia’s series of denials is that Moscow had nothing to do with it, and that the accusations are little more than a provocation.

Meanwhile, Russia has demanded that Britain hand over a sample of the substance for analysis, and demanded access to Yulia Skripal — a Russian citizen. Britain has not ceded to either demand.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international body, has arrived in Salisbury to conduct its own analysis of the chemical used in the poisoning. It is expected to reveal its findings in two or three weeks.

The OPCW has said it will hand its findings over to Britain, TASS reported Thursday.

Lavrov said that Russia was calling for a special session of the OPCW’s executive council on April 4 to discuss the situation, establish a dialogue and “raise specific questions” about Skripal’s poisoning and the alleged use of a novichok nerve agent.

If Western nations shy from engaging in a dialogue via the OPCW, Lavrov said, it would prove that the allegations against Moscow are nothing more than a “brazen provocation.” He also said that the OPCW could only confirm the substance used, not Britain’s assertions that Russia was behind it.

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