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Russia expels 60 US diplomats and shuts St Petersburg consulate amid ‘cold war’ warning

Russia has promised to eject the same number of foreign diplomats from its borders that other countries kicked out of theirs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 12:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 7:19pm

The Russian Foreign Ministry has retaliated for the expulsion of 60 of its diplomats from the United States by kicking 60 US diplomats out of its own borders.

It said the 58 diplomats in Moscow and two general consulate officials in Yekaterinburg were persona non grata in a row over the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain.

The move came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world was approaching a situation “similar” to the cold war, as tensions rise between the United States and Russia.

Sergey Lavrov said US Ambassador Jon Huntsman was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Thursday and told about the quid pro quo expulsions. 

Lavrov said Moscow would also retaliate against the US decision to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle by closing the US consulate in St Petersburg. 

He said the same approach would be applied to other nations that expelled Russian diplomats this week.

After Russia’s actions, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Russia had “no justification” for its “regrettable” retaliatory moves, and that it “should not be acting like a victim”.

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“It’s clear from the list provided to us that the Russian Federation is not interested in a dialogue on issues that matter to our two countries,” she said.

“We reserve the right to respond.”

In his remarks about a new cold war on Thursday, Guterres said the situation today was different in two important ways: There are more players in conflicts than during the two-superpower era, and fewer communication channels set up to keep problems from escalating.

He told reporters Thursday that he was “very concerned”.

So far, two dozen countries, including the US, Nato members and many EU nations, have expelled more than 150 Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity with Britain, which is responding to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, and his daughter Yulia.

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The Skripals were found unconscious in the English city of Salisbury on March 4; the British government has blamed Moscow for poisoning them with a military-grade nerve agent, leading to a spiralling international crisis.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said on Thursday that the expulsions came after “colossal” pressure from Washington and London, adding that the nations that succumbed to it “made a grave mistake”.

She denounced Britain’s assertion that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack on the Skripals as a “swindle” and an “international provocation.”

Zakharova insisted that Moscow was demanding access to materials of the investigation.

Earlier in the day, the former Soviet republic of Georgia became the latest country to expel a Russian diplomat in solidarity with Britain.

Georgia severed diplomatic ties with Russia after a brief war in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Russian diplomats have been operating out of the special interests section of the Swiss embassy in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, since 2009.

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the diplomat has been declared persona non grata and must leave within a week. The ministry condemned the poisoning, calling it a “serious challenge to common security.”

Also on Thursday, British health officials announced that Yulia Skripal, 33, was “improving rapidly and is no longer in critical condition”.

Medical director Dr. Christine Blanshard said, “She has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day.”

However, Sergei Skripal remains in critical condition, Salisbury National Health Service Trust said.