EU and Nato allies on Monday (26 March) expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in reaction to the chemical weapon attack in the UK.
Fourteen EU countries, including France and Germany, as well as Nato members Canada and the US, took the coordinated step.
The Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Sweden were among those EU member states who also showed solidarity with Great Britain.
“Additional measures, including further expulsions within this common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks,” European Council chief Donald Tusk said, after EU leaders agreed last week there was “no other plausible explanation” than that the Kremlin had ordered the killing of an ex-spy in England using a nerve agent.
The decision to expel four Russian diplomats was not taken “flippantly”, German foreign minister Heiko Mass said.
“For the first time since the end of World War II a chemical war agent was used in the middle of Europe,” he said.
Recent cyberattacks on German government networks were also “highly likely to be attributable to Russian sources”, the German foreign ministry added, amid broader allied concerns on Russian aggression.
France and Poland also expelled four Russians each, including Russia’s ambassador to Warsaw.
The UK attack was “a grave threat to our collective security”, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
The Russian “personae non grata” all had intelligence backgrounds, Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said. The UK attack was meant to “disrupt international order and create a sense of danger”, he added.
The Russian diplomats in Lithuania were also engaged in espionage, Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius told French news agency AFP. They were expelled “for activities incompatible with their diplomatic status,” he said.
By the end of Monday, the EU tally stood at: four Russians expelled by each of France, Germany, and Poland; three each by the Czech Republic and Lithuania; two each by Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Denmark; and one each by Estonia, Finland, Romania, Latvia, Croatia, Sweden. The total number was 30.
The US expelled 60 more diplomats, 48 from the Russian embassy in Washington and 12 from its mission to the UN in New York. It also closed down a Russian consulate in Seattle.
“Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and to conduct covert operations,” the White House said.
Canada, which expelled four diplomats, called Russia’s UK attack “a despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds”.
Ukraine, which is not in the EU or Nato, but which aligned itself with the West after a revolution four years ago, expelled 13 more Russians.
“Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever and will help defend our shared security,” British foreign minister Boris Johnson said.
“Russia cannot break international rules with impunity,” he added.
The mass expulsions mark a nadir in EU-Russia relations not seen since the end of the Cold War in the 1980s.
Further EU-level actions could include visa bans and asset freezes against Russian individuals, especially if the UK adopts a fully-fledged ‘Magnitsky Act’, designed to punish Russian leader Vladimir Putin by going after his and his cronies’ money in offshore entities.
Russia, which denies guilt, called the Western reaction to the UK attack a “violation of common sense, norms of civilised international dialogue and international law” and threatened to react in kind.
The Western action was “a dirty and mean game that has no precedent,” Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian MP, said.
The EU’s Tusk also voiced sympathy with people who died in a fire in a shopping mall Kemerovo, in Siberia, on Monday.
“We remain critical of the actions of the Russian government, but at the same time, today we Europeans – together with the Russian people – mourn the victims”, he said.