Russia to Expel 60 U.S. Diplomats; Tensions Are Worst in Decades

Business | March 30, 2018, Friday // 15:56|  views


 Russia on Thursday escalated a confrontation with Europe and the United States over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, saying it would expel 60 American diplomats and an unspecified number of envoys from other countries to retaliate for a mass expulsion of Russian diplomats working in the West and beyond that was ordered this week.

Furious at what it described as an anti-Russian campaign orchestrated by Washington and London, the Kremlin exceeded an equivalent response to the United States and ordered the closing of the American Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. The consulate is bigger and far more important to relations than the Russian Consulate in Seattle, which the Trump administration ordered closed on Monday as part of its expulsion decree.

The crisis over the March 4 poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter has driven tensions between the Kremlin and the West to their highest pitch in decades and forced European countries like Germany that are usually wary of clashing with Moscow to choose sides. Britain contends that the poison used was a signature Russian nerve agent created by Soviet-era scientists.

Voicing alarm that the East-West confrontation was spinning out of control, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, said that the crisis recalled the Cold War, only without the controls and channels of communication established before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union “to make sure things would not get out of control when tensions rise.”

The intensifying crisis has also put new pressure on President Trump. He has been loath to criticize Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and, against the advice of his advisers, he avoided any mention of the March 4 nerve agent attack in Salisbury, England, when he telephoned Mr. Putin to congratulate him on his lopsided victory in Russia’s March 18 election.

Hours later the White House issued a muted response, calling the Kremlin actions “a further deterioration” in United States-Russia relations.

“The expulsion of undeclared Russian intelligence officers by the United States and more than two dozen partner nations and NATO allies earlier this week was an appropriate response to the Russian attack on the soil of the United Kingdom,” the White House said in a statement. “Russia’s response was not unanticipated, and the United States will deal with it.”

In a sign that Russia’s political elite still retains hope that President Trump wants to take a softer line on Moscow, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of Parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Thursday that Mr. Trump had been forced to expel Russian diplomats on Monday under “pressure” from unidentified foes of the Kremlin who were angry that he had congratulated Mr. Putin.

Russian politicians and state-controlled media outlets have long clung to the idea that Mr. Trump is Moscow’s friend and would like to improve relations but has been pressured into taking a tough line by what they describe as America’s “deep state,” a supposed network of hidden powers hostile to Russia and often loyal to former administrations.

This resilient trust in Mr. Trump, however, has been severely undermined by the American decision to rally behind British accusations that Russia was to blame for the nerve agent attack on Sergei V. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain, and his daughter, Yulia. The Russians also are angry over Washington’s role in mobilizing a broad coalition of European and other countries in support of Britain.

In all, 27 countries are ejecting more than 150 Russians, including people listed by their embassies and consulates as diplomats, and military and cultural attachés. Western officials say that many of the Russians are spies and that the expulsions will hinder Russian espionage.

Britain’s national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, who was visiting Washington on Thursday as the Russian expulsion order was announced, called it a response to a powerful Western message: That for the first time the United States and two dozen other nations would “act together to respond to a range of aggressive Russian behavior.”

Wary of picking a fight with the whole of Europe, however, Russia has focused its fury on London and Washington, accusing them of strong-arming allies to endorse what it insists are unfounded accusations of Russian involvement in the attack on the Skripals.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that it would make a “mirror” response to expulsions by Germany, France and other countries that expelled a small number of Russian diplomats, suggesting equivalent expulsions of diplomats from European countries, Australia and other nations that ordered out Russian envoys on Monday.

But Moscow avoided denouncing those countries and instead accused the American authorities of “encouraging and fomenting a slander campaign against our country.” In a statement, the ministry demanded that they “stop their reckless actions aimed at ruining bilateral relations.”

In remarks on Russian television on Thursday evening, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, scoffed at accusations of a Russian role in the Salisbury attack as “unprecedented impudence” and said Western actions amounted to “gangsterism in international affairs.”

Mr. Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who was imprisoned in Russia for selling secrets to the British, was sent to Britain in 2010 as part of a spy swap. Why he would be targeted years later is unclear, but political and security analysts have said that the attack was a warning to those who would cross Mr. Putin that, even in exile, they are never beyond the Kremlin’s reach.

Relations between Russia and the West were already rocky over Moscow’s roles in the wars in Syria and Ukraine, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, its meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere, the assassination of Kremlin foes in Russia and abroad, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns against other countries and what Western officials have described as a broad, largely covert effort to destabilize and discredit liberal democracies.

Mr. Putin last year ordered the United States Embassy in Moscow to reduce its staff by 755 employees, mostly Russians working as guards, drivers and in other support jobs, after Congress ordered sweeping sanctions against Russia to punish it for meddling in the American election.

Russia’s decision on Thursday to evict 60 American diplomats will further strain the American Embassy’s already reduced operations, making it even more difficult to process visas and watch over economic relations and other matters on which Russia and Washington still sometimes collaborate. The Russian retaliation is also likely to hurt Western espionage capabilities in Russia. The United States and its allies also use diplomatic covers for their spies.

While relations were already strained, the nerve agent attack in Salisbury has frayed tempers so severely that mistrust between Moscow and the West has now spiked to a level not seen since a Soviet warplane shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet from New York to Seoul in 1983. Soviet officials initially denied any role in downing the plane.

In often angry comments at a press briefing on Thursday, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Maria Zakharova, said Britain had no evidence to support its accusations against Russia and compared them to a Nazi campaign to blame the Soviet Union for a 1933 fire at the German Parliament. The fire, exploited by the Nazis to rally support, played a crucial role in Hitler’s rise to power.

Ms. Zakharova said Washington and Britain had dragooned unwilling countries into their “anti-Russian campaign” through pressure and favors, which she did not detail.

Her remarks seemed aimed at containing the diplomatic crisis to Russia’s relations with London and Washington, the pillars of a trans-Atlantic alliance that Moscow, since the Cold War era, has accused of harboring a particular animus against Russia.

The Kremlin’s actions also signaled to the Russian public that their country was not at odds with the whole of Europe, which would be an alarming prospect for millions of Russians who travel each year to countries like France and Germany.

The closing of the consulate in St. Petersburg will please Russians and others who responded to an opinion poll conducted by the Russian Embassy in Washington. The embassy invited people following its Twitter account to vote for which American consulate Moscow should close in response to the closing of Russia’s Seattle consulate, and St. Petersburg was by far the favorite choice.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain and her government contend that Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with one of an extremely powerful class of nerve agents known as Novichok, developed by Soviet scientists in the 1970s and ’80s. The British say they have solid evidence that Russia was probably behind the attack, and that Mr. Putin himself probably approved it.

The Skripals were found unconscious in a busy shopping area in Salisbury, where Mr. Skripal lives. He remains hospitalized in critical condition, but his daughter is showing improvement, British officials announced on Thursday. British officials say that hundreds of people could have been exposed to the nerve agent used against the Skripals.

Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said Thursday that Russia had called for a meeting next Tuesday of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to “establish the truth” with respect to what Russia refers to as “the so-called Skripal case.”


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Tags: Russia, Sankt Petersburg, diplomats, expell, chemical weapons, Washington, NATO allies


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