45 Russian diplomats expelled across Europe

Ahmet Gurhan Kartal

LONDON: Fourteen EU member states have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in an orchestrated reaction Monday, over the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K.

At least 45 Russian diplomats have been expelled across Europe so far.

“As a direct follow up to last week’s European Council decision to react to Russia within a common framework, already today 14 member states have decided to expel Russian diplomats,” said President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who was in Bulgaria’s Varna for an EU-Turkey Summit.

“The European Council agreed with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation. We decided to recall the EU Ambassador to Russia for consultations,” he added.

Germany was one of the first to make the announcement as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin had “expelled four Russian diplomats”. A French Foreign Ministry statement said they have “notified the Russian authorities of our decision to expel from the French territory four Russian personnel with diplomatic status, within one week.”

Poland said they were also expelling four Russians in the wake of the ex-spy poisoning row.

– ‘Strong European message’

Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia, Spain and Italy said they had expelled two diplomats each.

Lithuania and the Czech Republic made similar announcements to expel three. Meanwhile, Estonia, Croatia, Finland and Romania said they have asked one diplomat to leave. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven later said they will also expel a Russian diplomat.

Ukraine, a non-EU country, joined the 14 states and expelled 13 Russian diplomats. Albania followed suit to expel two Russian diplomats.

Tusk said that “additional measures, including further expulsions within this common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks”. The strong support from the EU countries, as well as Ukraine, the U.S. and Canada followed a European Council meeting held in Brussels this week.

The U.S. expelled 60 diplomats Washington said were working as intelligence officers, and ordered the closure of Moscow’s consulate in Seattle.

In addition, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said four diplomatic staff at the Russian embassy in the Canadian capital of Ottawa or the consulate general in Montreal will be ordered out of the country. “We agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers at the House of Commons on Monday .

“Today’s 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,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said on Twitter.

“Russia cannot break international rules with impunity,” he added. Moscow considers this step “an unfriendly provocative gesture of notorious solidarity”, said a statement published on the Foreign Ministry’s official website.

“There is no objective and comprehensive data confirming Russian involvement in the Sergey and Yulia Skripal case,” it added. “The unfriendly step of this group of countries will not pass without a trace, we will react to it,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow regretted the decision by Western countries to expel Russian diplomats. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, were admitted to a hospital after being found unconscious in the southern English city of Salisbury.

“Mr. Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia,” specifically from the Novichok group, May said following the attack.

The incident has drawn comparisons to the 2006 death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko after drinking radioactive tea. Former KGB bodyguards identified as suspects in the murder denied any involvement.

Skripal was granted refuge in the U.K. following a 2010 spy exchange between the U.S. and Russia. Before the exchange, he was serving 13 years in prison for leaking information to British intelligence. Russia missed a deadline by London to explain how a certain type of military-grade nerve agent was used in the attack.

“But their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May said. The world-wide expulsion of Russian diplomats followed the departure of 23 Russian diplomats from the U.K. last week over the Salisbury incident.