US President Donald Trump (AFP)
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, including a dozen at Russia's mission to the United Nations. 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
The expelled Russians will have seven days to leave the U.S, said the officials. They weren't authorized to be identified by name and requested anonymity. They added that the Seattle consulate is a counter-intelligence concern because of its proximity to a U.S. Navy base.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the actions would make the U.S. safer by "reducing Russia's ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations" that threaten U.S. national security.
"With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences," Sanders said.
The move was one of the most significant actions President Donald Trump's administration has taken to date to push back on Moscow and Russian President Vladimir 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.
The U.S. actions came as more than a dozen nations, including those in Russia's neighborhood, were expected to announce similar steps to reduce Russia's diplomatic presence in their countries or other actions to punish Moscow. Poland summoned Russia's ambassador for talks, and its foreign ministry was among several in Europe planning news conferences later Monday.
Britain has already expelled 23 Russian diplomats, accusing them of being undeclared intelligence agents, which led Russia to expel the same number of British diplomats. The European Union has already recalled its ambassador to Russia.
The steps on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean add to a serious escalation of tensions between Russia and the West that has been building since the March 4 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer convicted of spying for the U.K., and his daughter, Yulia. The two remain in critical condition and unconscious. A policeman who responded to their home was also injured.
Britain has accused Moscow of perpetrating the attack using a Soviet-developed nerve agent known as Novichok. The U.S., France and Germany have agreed it's highly likely Russia was responsible.
Russia's government has denied responsibility and has blasted Britain's investigation into the poisoning. There was no immediate reaction from Russia on Friday to the U.S. announcement.