Russia hits back at US by expelling diplomats and targeting NGOs

Germany, France and Ukraine urge Russia to end troop build-up near Ukrainian border

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Russian foreign affairs ministry/Handout/EPA

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Russian foreign affairs ministry/Handout/EPA

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Moscow has announced the expulsion of 10 US diplomats in a tit-for-tat move and plans to target US-funded NGOs in response to sanctions imposed by the White House, as Ukraine, Germany and France urged Russia to withdraw troops from close to the Ukrainian border.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also said the Kremlin had “recommended” that US ambassador to Moscow John Sullivan return home for “detailed, serious consultations”, and that sanctions would be imposed on eight unnamed US officials.

Mr Lavrov said Russia would in addition “restrict and halt the activity on our territory of American funds, American nongovernmental organisations which, without concealing it, directly meddle in our domestic political life.”

The White House on Thursday expelled 10 Russian diplomats and sanctioned dozens of Russian individuals and entities for alleged involvement in election interference, cyberattacks, aggression against Ukraine and other malign activity.

US president Joe Biden said “we could have gone further but ... I chose to be proportionate. The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “hypocritical” of Washington to urge Moscow to refrain from escalation while imposing new sanctions, which included a ban on US financial institutions buying rouble-denominated Russian state debt.

“It seems in Washington they do not want to accept that in the new geopolitical realities there is no place for one-sided diktat,” the ministry said on Friday, warning that US efforts to “contain Moscow” would only lead to “further degradation of Russian-American relations”.

‘Killer’ Putin

Mr Biden has made clear that he wants to adopt a strong but pragmatic policy with Russia, but he angered the Kremlin last month by saying he regarded Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as “a killer”.

The long-term chill in US-Russia relations has deepened further in recent weeks, as Moscow has sent a large contingent of soldiers and armour towards Ukraine and and into Crimea, which it annexed from Kiev in 2014.

The US, EU and Nato have urged Russia to withdraw the forces, and Ukraine has reinforced its own military presence near Crimea and in the eastern Donbas region that is partially controlled by Moscow-led separatists.

French president Emmanuel Macron hosted Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy for talks on the situation on Friday, and they were joined via video link by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Her spokesman said the three leaders “shared concerns about the build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and in the illegally annexed Crimea. They called for the reduction of these troop reinforcements in order to bring about a de-escalation of the situation.”

Mr Zelenskiy said he hoped that they would talk again soon with Mr Putin, “so the four of us can get down to the question of the security situation in eastern Ukraine and de-occupying our territory.”