US says Russian decision to expel 60 diplomats is ‘unwarranted’

Russian foreign ministry responds to US expulsions over poisoning of ex-spy in Salisbury

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/EPA

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/EPA

 

The United States has dismissed Russia’s move to expel 60 American diplomats and close the US consulate in Saint Petersburg as “regrettable and unwarranted”, as Washington accused Moscow of isolating itself over the “brazen” chemical attack on a former double agent in Salisbury, England. 

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced the expulsions after summoning US ambassador to Jon M Huntsman to the foreign ministry. The American officials have until April 5th to leave the country, while the consulate will be closed within 48 hours. Russia will also move to expel an unspecified number of foreign diplomats based in Russia, with Ireland expected to be targeted.

A state department spokeswoman said there was “no justification for the Russian response”, noting that the US actions earlier in the week were motivated purely by the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. “This is the first time that a weapons grade weapon has been used outside war on allied soil,” state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

The announcement by Russia – which was not unexpected – came on the back of a co-ordinated move by the United States, Canada and several European countries to expel about 150 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

‘Responding well’

While Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition, the condition of his daughter Yulia is improving. Doctors treating Ms Skripal, who was admitted to hospital in Salisbury with her father on March 4th after both collapsed, said she had “responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day”.

A high concentration of a nerve agent Novichok was found at Mr Skripal’s home in Salisbury, while lower concentrations were found in other areas in the town. The attack has been widely blamed on Russia, which has denied any involvement in the attack.

The tit-for-tat expulsions mark a new low point in relations between Russia and the West, which have been strained since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad. US president Donald Trump has made no reference to this week’s expulsions in person or on Twitter.

Ohio rally

The president flew to Ohio on Thursday to attend a rally in Richfield. Addressing workers and supporters, Mr Trump said his administration was “fighting every day” to “protect, defend and grow American jobs”.

“We have eliminated a record number of job-killing regulations. We made history by massively reducing job-killing taxes,” he said, promising that there is more to come.

He also pledged to rebuild America’s “crumbling infrastructure”: “We have watched as Washington spent trillions of dollars building up foreign countries while allowing our own country’s infrastructure to fall into a state of total disrepair,” he told the crowd.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Mr Trump’s firing of secretary of veteran affairs David Shulkin on Wednesday continued. Mr Trump announced on Twitter that he was replacing Mr Shulkin with White House doctor Ronny Jackson. The Texas native, who gave Mr Trump a full bill of health in January, also served as President Barack Obama’s physician.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times and an interview with NPR radio news, Mr Shulkin delivered a parting shot to his former bosses, arguing that his opposition to privatising healthcare for veterans was the reason he was removed.

“As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country,” he wrote in the New York Times.