More than 20 western allies have ordered the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack in the UK, in a show of solidarity that represents the biggest concerted blow to Russian intelligence networks in the west since the cold war.
Over 100 Russian diplomats alleged to be spies in western countries are being told to return to Moscow, in a coordinated response to the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence official, and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury on 4 March.
In a sombre statement in the House of Commons, Theresa May welcomed what she said was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.
“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, Nato and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident,” the prime minister said. “And together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia’s continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values.” She added: “If the Kremlin’s goal is to divide and intimidate the western alliance, then their efforts have spectacularly backfired.”
The Russian government called the expulsions “a provocative gesture” and said it would retaliate in kind, raising the prospect of further tit-for-tat expulsions, as the US and Europe left the door open for additional measures. The Kremlin said Vladimir Putin would make the final decision, and the Russian embassy in the US launched a poll on Twitter asking which US consulate in Russia should be closed.
The US has ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian officials who Washington says are spies, including a dozen based at the United Nations, and told Moscow to shut down its consulate in Seattle, which would end Russian diplomatic representation on the west coast.
The EU members Germany, France and Poland are each to expel four Russian diplomats with intelligence agency backgrounds. Lithuania and the Czech Republic said they would expel three, and Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands two each. Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Sweden and Romania each expelled one Russian. Iceland announced it would not be sending officials to the World Cup in Russia.
Ukraine, which is not an EU member, is to expel 13 Russian diplomats, while Albania, an EU candidate member, ordered the departure of two Russians from the embassy in Tirana. Macedonia, another EU candidate, expelled one Russian official.
Canada announced it was expelling four diplomatic staff serving in Ottawa and Montreal who the Canadian government said were spies. A pending application from Moscow for three more diplomatic posts in Canada is being denied.
Australia confirmed that it too would expel two Russian diplomats who were in the country as undeclared intelligence officers, giving them seven days to leave.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesperson, told reporters Monday that the US expulsions were part of “a coordinated effort”.
He added that Donald Trump “spoke with many foreign leaders, European allies and others and encouraged them to join with the United States in this announcement”.
Shah described the expulsions as “an important message to send to Russia and significant to degrading their intelligence capabilities”.
By the close of the day a small “coalition of the unwilling” inside the EU had indicated to the UK Foreign Office that they were not prepared to expel any Russian diplomats in solidarity with the UK. The eight countries were Portugal, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia and Luxembourg. Belgium and Ireland made no announcements but have indicated action will be taken after cabinet meetings.
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning, and Russia responded by ejecting the same number of British diplomats.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing the expulsions as “an unfriendly step” based on alliances rather than evidence.
“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 statement said.
The UK has refused to provide a sample of the nerve agent to Russia but has supplied one to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is conducting its own investigation.
A senior US official said the expulsions and the Seattle consulate closure were in response to “a reckless attempt by the [Russian] government to murder a British citizen and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent”.
A second official said the measures were also intended as a response to a “steady drumbeat of destabilising and aggressive actions” by Moscow against the US and its allies.
The alleged spies being expelled from the US include 48 in the Russian embassy in Washington and 12 at the Russian mission at the UN, who the US says are engaged in “aggressive collection here in the US”.
US officials said the spies at the UN were abusing their residence privileges under the UN headquarters agreement. They said there were more than 100 Russian spies in the US and the expulsions would significantly reduce Russian espionage capabilities in the country. The expelled Russians have seven days to leave the country.
Mark Simakovsky, a former Russia desk director at the Pentagon, said the mass expulsions by such a large number of countries acting in concert were unprecedented, but Moscow still had plenty of ways to spy on the west.
“Most Russian intelligence operations are not being done by agents acting under cover of diplomatic protocols,” said Simakovsky, now a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Most likely, the poisoning of the Skripals was not done by anyone in an embassy or consulate.”
Daniel Fried, a former state department sanctions coordinator, said the only measures likely to have real effect on Putin’s behaviour would be sanctions aimed at Russian money in the west.
“This is impressive but it is still the standard playbook,” Fried said. “If we are serious about this, we ought to think outside the box. I would start going after the money, and make clear that Russia is not going to find the west a convenient place to do business. That means going after London real estate, and you can’t do that without getting Miami and New York involved.”
The White House issued a statement saying the US was acting to “make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences”. Trump did not comment on Twitter, his usual form of expression on issues he feels strongly about.
While other members of his administration have spoken out strongly against Russia, in particular for its interference in the 2016 US election, Trump has avoided saying or tweeting anything critical of the Kremlin, and last week defied his advisers in congratulating Putin on winning an election generally seen as closed and unfair.
A senior US official said on Monday that the nature of the Russian response to UK allegations had helped convince the administration that the Kremlin was culpable.
“Russia has had nearly a month to respond but instead of explaining has engaged in the usual obfuscation we have seen in the past,” a US official said, noting that Moscow had put out a series of conflicting stories and attempted to put the blame on others, including the US. EU heads of state concluded last week that it was highly likely the Russian state was responsible for the attack. The EU is also looking at coordinated steps to rein back Russian hybrid warfare.