Russia announces tit-for-tat expulsions of Western diplomats, will close US consulate in St. Petersburg

Now live
01:01 mins.
29.03.2018

Russia to expel 60 diplomats

Russia says it will expel foreign diplomats on the same scale as the number of Russian envoys who were expelled from other countries. US diplomats have until April 5 to leave the country.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin would retaliate in kind after countries expelled diplomats following the poisoning of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.

The decision is the latest in the diplomatic fallout that began after Britain accused Russia of responsibility for the nerve agent attack in early March.

Read more: Germany, other countries expel Russian diplomats over Skripal poisoning

What Lavrov said:

  • The Foreign Ministry told US Ambassador Jon Huntsman that Russia would expel 60 US diplomats — 58 officials in Moscow and two at the US consulate in Yekaterinburg — and close the US consulate in St. Petersburg.
  • The consulate would have to suspend work by March 31, while the diplomats would have to leave Russia by April 5.
  • The decision was in response to the US decision to expel the same number of Russian diplomats and close the Russian consulate in Seattle.
  • Russia would also retaliate equivalently to two dozen other countries, including Germany, that expelled Russian diplomats.
  • Russia was reacting to "absolutely unacceptable actions that are taken against [them] under very harsh pressure from the United States and Britain under the pretext of the so-called Skripal case."

US Ambassador Jon Huntsman was informed about the decision at the Russian Foreign Ministry

How the White House reacted: Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, said the move by Moscow marked a "further deterioration in the United States-Russia relationship," but that it "was not unanticipated."

"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," Sanders said.

What Russia is responding to: Two dozen countries, including the US, many EU countries and NATO, announced last week that they would together expel more than 150 Russian diplomatssuspected of being spies in response to the poisoning. The move followed the UK's decision to expel 23 Russian envoys.

The US State Department said there was "no justification" for the expulsion of US diplomats and added that it "reserved the right to respond."

Read more: Salisbury nerve agent attack: Russian spy's daughter Yulia Skripal 'improving'

What the spat is about: Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found in critical condition on a bench in the southern English town of Salisbury on March 4. British scientists said the two were attacked using a Russian-made nerve agent called "Novichok." The UK subsequently accused Russia of responsibility for the attack.

What happens next: Lavrov said Moscow had called a meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for Monday to discuss the case. The watchdog has been analyzing the Novichok sample in collaboration with UK authorities.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Ex-Russian spy poisoned

On March 4, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped on a bench outside a shopping center in the British town of Salisbury. Authorities said both were in a critical condition after being exposed to an "unknown substance." Skripal was a former general of Russian military intelligence who had been convicted in Russia for spying for the UK.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia denies involvement

Russia denied any knowledge of the poisoning, which echoed the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. "We see that such a tragic situation happened," Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on March 6. "But we don't have information about what could be the cause, what this person did."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Nerve agent suspected

On March 7, British police said they suspected a very rare nerve agent was behind the poisoning of Skripal. "This is being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent," Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said in a statement. "I can also confirm that we believe the two people originally who became unwell were targeted specifically."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK promises retaliation

British police said more than 21 people had sought medical treatment as a result of the nerve agent attack. On March 8, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that enormous resources were being used to determine who was behind the attack. Rudd called the use of a chemical nerve agent on British soil a "brazen and reckless" act that would be answered with all possible force.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

May gives Russia a deadline

On March 12, British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers it was "highly likely" Russia was behind the poisoning. May said the Russian government had either ordered the attack or lost control of the Russian-produced chemical nerve agent Novichok. She gave Moscow until midnight on Tuesday to explain its Novichok program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

EU supports UK

On March 13, vice president of the European Commission European Union, Valdis Dombrovskis, said the EU would stand in solidarity with Britain after London accused Russia of being behind the nerve agent attack. When asked if the EU might impose sanctions of Russia if it was agreed Moscow was responsible for the attack, Dombrovskis said: "Of course, the UK can count on EU solidarity in this regard."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia calls UK bluff

Russia failed to respond to May’s midnight deadline for an explanation of its suspected involvement in the poisoning. On March 14, a spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in London said Moscow would not respond "until it receives samples of the chemical substance." May had said a "full range" of retaliatory measures would be considered if Moscow did not give a "credible response" by the deadline.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK announces expulsions of diplomats

After Russia failed to give an explanation, May announced on March 14 that the UK would expel 23 Russian diplomats identified as "undeclared intelligence officers." May also said the UK would suspend all high-level bilateral contact with Russia. The biggest expulsions from London in 30 years would "fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability for years to come," May said.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

France, Germany, UK, US blame Russia

On March 15, the leaders of France, Germany, the UK and US released a joint statement that demanded "complete disclosure" from Russia saying there is "no plausible alternative" to Moscow's involvement. The statement said the attack using "a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia" constituted "an assault on UK sovereignty" that threatened "the security of us all."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Russia expels British diplomats

In retaliation to the UK, Russia said it would also expel 23 British diplomats, giving them the same one-week deadline. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it would also close the British Council in Russia, and might take further measures against Britain in the event of more "hostile steps" from London. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had said Moscow would "of course" respond with expulsions.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Putin dismisses claims as 'nonsense'

"It's complete drivel, rubbish, nonsense that somebody in Russia would allow themselves to do such a thing ahead of elections and the World Cup," Putin said on March 19. "It's quite obvious that if it were a military-grade nerve agent, people would have died on the spot." Putin said Moscow "destroyed all our chemical weapons under international oversight unlike some of our partners."

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

UK says Novichok was used

On March 20, UK scientists determined Skripal was poisoned using a little-known nerve agent from a group of chemical compounds known as Novichok. The family of compounds, which were developed in the 1970s and 80s, comprise numerous nerve agents. The Soviets once developed these weapons to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention. Novichok-5 and Novichok-7 are supposed to be the most dangerous.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Mass Russian diplomat expulsions

A number of EU countries teamed together on March 26 and simultaneously announced they would be expelling Russian diplomats. Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia and Ukraine all announced they would be expelling Russian envoys. The US followed suit with the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and announced the closure of Moscow's consulate in Seattle.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

Poison on front door

UK police found the highest concentration of the nerve agent on the front door of the Skripal's family home in Salisbury. They believe that is where Skripal and his daughter must have first come into contact with the poison. It was likely mixed in with a "gloopy substance" smeared on the door handle.

Russian spy poisoning: How it unfolded

New Novichok victims

In early July, weeks after both Skripals were discharged from the Salisbury hospital, another two people were apparently poisoned with the same substance in the nearby town of Amesbury. A 45-year-old man and a 44-year-old woman were found unconscious and were transported to the same hospital in critical condition.

amp,es/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

Each evening at 1830 UTC, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.