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As diplomats are expelled, flowers are laid outside Russian embassies for fire victims

A woman places roses, a candle and a plush bear in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington in memory of the scores who died Sunday in a mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In the same week that more than 100 Russian spies and diplomats have been expelled by more than two dozen countries, flowers and other expressions of tribute have been left outside Russian embassies around the world.

However, these tributes have nothing to do with the diplomatic expulsions. Instead, people have been moved to pay their respects after a devastating fire this weekend in Russia.

At least 64 people, most of them children, were killed in the Sunday fire at a mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. Amid reports that fire alarms did not sound and that fire exits had been blocked, residents of the city are demanding a full investigation. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the city Tuesday as thousands took to the streets to protest.

By coincidence, this tragedy occurred as the West is responding to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain with wide-ranging and coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the poisoning and has instead responded with parallel theories, social media trolling and threats of further retaliatory expulsions in addition to the 23 British diplomats told to leave Russia earlier this month.

Despite this sharp rise in tensions between Russia and the West, tributes to those who perished in Sunday's fire have been reported outside several Russian embassies around the world, including London and Washington.

Notably, tributes also were left outside embassies in countries neighboring Russia that have an especially tense relationship with Moscow, including Estonia and Ukraine. It was not clear whether these memorials were left by Russians in those countries or others.

The tragedy in Kemerovo is a complication for the diplomatic messaging surrounding the expulsions. Though planning for the expulsions had begun long before the fire occurred, many expected a delay in their announcement. Instead, Western officials have had to offer both condolences and condemnation at once this week.

The White House opened its news briefing on Monday by expressing sympathy to the Russian people for the lives lost in the fire, before turning to the issue of the diplomatic expulsions. On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman sent a message offering his “heartfelt condolences.”

In a statement on the expulsions and other measures on Monday, European Council President Donald Tusk emphasized the need for compassion over the Russian fire tragedy. “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 of the tragic fire in the city of Kemerovo in western Siberia,” Tusk said during a European Union meeting in Bulgaria. “Our thoughts and hearts are with you.”

Nonetheless, Russian officials have criticized the Western response to the fire. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the expulsions demonstrated disrespect for the dead. “We have always shared the grief of American and European people when misfortune came to their door,” Zakharova wrote Monday on Facebook. “Today we heard words of condolences, but we witnessed absolutely unjustified aggression. It's hard to believe and it will be hard to forget.”

The Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, also accused Washington on Monday of being “emotionally deaf, indifferent and inconsiderate” after the tragedy in Kemerovo. “They have simply decided to make it even more painful,” Antonov said during a news briefing, before praising ordinary Americans for their expressions of grief and their condolences.

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