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U.S., EU States Expel Dozens Of Russian Diplomats Over Poisoning, Moscow Vows Retaliation

Adults and children board an aircraft sent to collect diplomats and their families from Russia's embassy in London who were expelled by Britain last week after the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Now, the U.S. and other NATO allies are also expelling some Russian diplomatic staff.

The United States, European Union member states, Ukraine, and Canada have ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England -- a move the Kremlin vowed to match with "the principle of reciprocity."

The nearly simultaneous announcements on March 26 signaled a united front in the face of what Britain and other Western countries say was the use of a military-grade nerve toxin against Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month.

U.S. President Donald Trump "ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to one of our submarine bases and [plane maker] Boeing," a White House spokesperson said.

"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," it said.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury on March 4. They remain in critical condition.

A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) and his daughter Yulia
A composite photo of Sergei Skripal (left) and his daughter Yulia

The Kremlin, which has denied responsibility for the attack and has already retaliated against Britain’s expulsion of 23 Russians by ordering out the same number of Britons, characterized the March 26 moves as a "mistake."

"We strongly regret the decision made by several countries to expel Russian diplomats," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that President Vladimir Putin will make the ultimate decision on Russia’s response.

"We will be guided by the principle of reciprocity," he said.

European Council President Donald Tusk said that half of the EU’s 28 nations were expelling Russian diplomats, adding that "further expulsions within this common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks."

'Extraordinary International Response'

Within that framework, 31 Russians were being kicked out of EU countries, including four each from Germany, France and Poland.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a message on Twitter that the "extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security."

"Russia cannot break international rules with impunity," he added.

Ukraine, which is not an EU member, said it would expel 13 Russian diplomats and reiterated that its diplomatic ties with Russia "are de facto frozen" because of Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

"Russia once again confirmed its dismissive attitude not only to the sovereignty of independent states, but also to the value of human life," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement, adding that sanctions against Moscow should be tightened further.

The U.S. order includes 12 Russian intelligence officers from Moscow's UN mission in New York, senior administration officials told reporters on condition of anonymity.

'Despicable, Heinous Act'

Other countries expelling Russian diplomats included the Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands.

Canada said it was expelling four Russian diplomats who have been identified as intelligence officers or individuals who used diplomatic status to undermine the country’s security or interfere with its democracy.

Ottawa added that it was denying the applications of three more Russians seeking to become diplomatic staff.

“The nerve agent attack in Salisbury, on the soil of Canada's close partner and ally, is a despicable, heinous, and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

In a statement on March 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the expulsions would not help "find those who are guilty" in the poisoning.

The ministry accused "Britain's allies" of "blindly following the principle of Euroatlantic unity at the expense of common sense."

"It is self-evident that this unfriendly step by this group of countries will not pass without a trace, and we will react."

Skripal, 66, is a former Russian military intelligence officer who was convicted of treason in 2006 after a court found that he passed the identities of Russian intelligence agents to Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

He was one of four Russian prisoners released in 2010 in exchange for 10 Russian sleeper agents uncovered in the United States in one of the biggest spy swaps since the Cold War.

He and his daughter fell ill one day after Yulia Skripal, 33, arrived on a visit from Moscow, where she had been living.

With reporting by RFE/RL Correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AP, dpa, and BBC.