U.S., several EU nations expel Russian officials over spy poisoning

The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats on Monday and ordered Russia's consulate in Seattle to close, as the United States and European nations sought to jointly punish Moscow for its alleged role in poisoning an ex-spy in Britain, with the EU announcing 14 member nations were acting similarly.

International outrcy and co-ordinated response to Skripal poisoning has grown in past week

The announcement Monday that the U.S. was expelling 60 Russian diplomats could blunt some of the criticism U.S. President Donald Trump, right, has taken over his approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin, left. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats on Monday and ordered Russia's consulate in Seattle to close, as the United States and European nations sought to jointly punish Moscow for its alleged role in poisoning an ex-spy in Britain.

Senior Trump administration officials said all 60 Russians were spies working in the U.S. under diplomatic cover.

The officials said the administration was taking the action to send a message to Russia's leaders about the "unacceptably high" number of Russian intelligence operatives in the U.S and to respond to the March 4 attack, which left Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in critical condition in Britain.

"The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia's use of military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world," the White House said in a statement.

The expelled Russians will have seven days to leave the U.S, said the officials. Officials added that the Seattle consulate is a counter-intelligence concern because of its proximity to a U.S. Navy base.

Parking for consul vehicles is reserved outside One Union Square, the downtown Seattle building that houses the Russian consulate on the 25th floor. The Trump administration ordered Russia's consulate in Seattle to close, as the West sought joint punishment for Moscow's alleged role in poisoning an ex-spy in Britain. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement that the 60 include a dozen "intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission to the United Nations who have abused their privilege of residence in the United States."

A sign on the glass door of the Russian consulate's office in downtown Seattle said in Russian that the office was closed and would not be accepting new passport applications. Last year, the U.S. closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco.

Canada expels 4, denies 3

Canada also announced action in solidarity with Britain on Monday over what it called the "despicable, heinous and reckless act" in Salisbury, England, which also left a British police officer hospitalized for nearly three weeks.

"We are expelling four members of Russia's diplomatic staff, serving either at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada or the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Montreal," said the statement from Global Affairs Canada.

"The four have been identified as intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada's security or interfere in our democracy. For similar reasons, three applications by the Russian government for additional diplomatic staff in Canada will now be denied."

Last week, several people were seen leaving the Russian Embassy in London, following an expulsion order in Britain. Dozens more diplomats around the world are being asked to leave in Monday's co-ordinated announcements. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

As recently as last week, Canada's foreign affairs ministry said it wasn't preparing sanctions in specific response to the Skripal case, although the country has been among the first to use the Magnitsy Act to punish Russian officials.

European Union chief Donald Tusk said Monday that 14 EU members will expel Russian diplomatic staff; the number of Russians affected was over 30, according to an EU official speaking to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Britain had already expelled 23 Russian diplomats, accusing them of being undeclared intelligence agents, which led Russia to expel the same number of British diplomats.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Monday expressed gratitude for te international response.

"We welcome today's actions by our allies, which clearly demonstrate that we all stand shoulder to shoulder in sending the strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law," a statement from May's office said.

May subsequently said in the House of Commons that Britain's grievance is not with the Russian people but with the regime of President Vladimir Putin "carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond."

She said some 100 individuals are affected across countries by the concerted moves. 

Eastern nations stand up

The countries quick to announce efforts on Monday included those in Eastern Europe or that share a border with Russia, including Finland, Estonia, Czech Republic, Romania and Poland.

Ukraine, not a EU member but embroiled in conflict with Moscow after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine, said it would expel 13 Russian diplomats.
European Council President Donald Tusk said over 30 Russian officials are affected by the expulsion orders from European Union member states. (Julien Warnand/EPA-EFE)

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said through social media that Ukraine was acting in the "spirit of solidarity" with its "British partners and trans-Atlantic allies."

Poroshenko also called for further "raising the price" for Moscow through financial and economic sanctions.

In addition to expelling three Russian diplomats, Lithuania said it would also ban a further 44 people from entering the country.

Other European countries acting Monday included Italy, France, Germany, Croatia, Albania, Hungary, Latvia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands.

From the U.S. perspective, the move is likely the most significant action President Donald Trump's administration has taken to date to push back on Moscow and Putin. Less than a week ago, Trump congratulated Putin by phone for his re-election but didn't raise the spy case, renewing questions about whether the U.S. president is too soft on the Kremlin.

Trump has also taken criticism for his perceived reluctance to criticize Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, and it was reported there was friction between the White House and the outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after Tillerson was quick to point the finger at Russia after the Skripal poisoning.

The State Department on Monday called upon Russia to "accept responsibility for its actions" and "uphold international peace and security."

'They may never recover fully'

Russia, however, will likely respond with its own punitive and symbolic acts.

Russia's Foreign Ministry expressed early outrage to the co-ordinated action, saying in a statement the allies of Britain were "blindly following the principle of Euro-Atlantic solidarity in violation of common sense, norms of civilized international dialogue and international law."

"The provocative gesture of the so-called solidarity of these countries with London, which blindly followed the British authorities in the so-called Skripal case and which never got around to sort out the circumstances of the incident, is a continuation of the confrontational policy to escalate the situation," the foreign ministry said.

Anatoly Antonov, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., denounced the U.S. response, specifically, as ill-considered and provocative and said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that Moscow will have an "adequate" response to its actions.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are seen in a composite photo. British Prime Minister Theresa May said their condition is unlikely to change greatly in the (Misha Japaridze/AP; Yulia Skripal/Facebook via AP)

He said Monday that the U.S. is "ruining what is left of Russian-U.S. ties" and that Washington will bear responsibility for the consequences.

The Skripals remain hospitalized in Britain. According to recent British media reports, they are physically stable but heavily sedated and unable to communicate in a meaningful way.

May said "their condition is unlikely to change in the near future, and they may never recover fully."

May told lawmakers that more than 130 people in Salisbury may have been exposed to the nerve agent used to poison the Skripals. More than 50 people have been assessed in hospitals.

Blood samples from the Skripals have been sent to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, although the international watchdog has no power to compel participating nations to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons.

With files from CBC News