The Trump administration joined nearly two dozen other countries in expelling more than 100 Russian spies and diplomats Monday in what British Prime Minister Theresa May called the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.”
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the March 4 attack in Britain was the latest in Russia’s “ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world.”
“With these steps, the United States and our allies and partners make clear to Russia that its actions have consequences,” she said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the expulsions an “unfriendly step” that “will not pass unnoticed.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Russia’s position that it was not involved in poisoning Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
“We already stated and reconfirm that Russia has never had any relation to this case,” Peskov said, adding that after an analysis, the Foreign Ministry would propose retaliatory measures for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consideration.
Monday’s move marked the most sweeping U.S. purge since the Reagan administration ordered 55 diplomats out of the country in 1986.
It underscored the Trump administration’s mixed dynamic toward Russia, involving increasingly tough actions by various agencies paired with the president’s markedly more conciliatory language.
Only last week, President Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his reelection but did not condemn the poisoning.
Referring to the call, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said the expulsions go against the “telephone conversation between our two presidents.”
State Department officials said Trump signed off on the recommendation to expel the diplomats but was not heavily engaged in the discussion leading up to Monday’s announcement. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal processes.
The administration last week began considering expulsions of a minimum of 20 diplomats, and State Department and White House officials recommended the higher number, officials said.
White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah did not directly address why Trump has not said anything publicly about the expulsions. Shah noted that while Trump did not raise either the poisoning or potential U.S. retaliation in his call with Putin last week, the president did “secure with Putin on that call some positive interaction when it comes to nuclear arms.”
“Our relationship with Russia is, frankly, up to the Russian government, and up to Vladimir Putin and others in senior leadership in Russia,” Shah said. “We want to have a cooperative relationship. The president wants to work with Russia. But their actions sometimes don’t allow that to happen.”
The close consultation with European allies was particularly striking given the wedge that Trump has driven between the United States and Europe. In the end, European countries ordered 50 Russians to leave.
“It was powerful as a statement had they done it unilaterally, but it was even more powerful in close coordination with our allies,” said Evelyn Farkas, a fellow specializing in national security at the Atlantic Council.
The coordinated expulsions followed a frenetic weekend of calls among the United States and 20 allies that all announced the expulsions almost simultaneously in a broad attempt to disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence network across Europe. Larger countries such as Canada, France, Germany and Poland ordered four Russian diplomats to leave. Most of the rest ousted only one or two Russians in a largely symbolic gesture of solidarity.
European Council President Donald Tusk said additional measures, including more expulsions, could be coming.
Senior U.S. officials said they believe that the consulate in Seattle, which was ordered to close by April 2, has served as a key outpost in Russia’s intelligence operations, in part because of its proximity to a U.S. submarine base as well as Boeing manufacturing facilities.
The expulsions reflect the downward trajectory of Russia’s relations with the West, already battered by accusations of election interference in the United States and other democracies. The rupture, along with the anticipated Russian tit-for-tat, is the most severe diplomatic crisis between the Kremlin and the West since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, ushering in a punishing set of U.S. and European sanctions.
In Russia, where many people had hoped Trump’s 2016 election would bring a thaw in the chilly relationship, there has been a sharp reevaluation of Trump.
“Many Russians now see no substantial difference between Obama and Trump Administration policies toward their country,” said William Courtney, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Moscow, writing in an email from his plane shortly after leaving Russia. “This has disappointed many Russians, who had thought that Trump would be more favorable toward Russia than Obama had been.”
Peskov did not answer a question about how the expulsions would affect “the outlook for a Russia-U.S. summit,” the Tass news agency reported. The Kremlin said last week that Putin and Trump had discussed an upcoming meeting in their call, and Trump said they would get together “soon.” But senior administration officials have said there are no plans for a summit.
Antonov said he was called to the State Department at 8 a.m. Monday and informed of the expulsions by Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for Europe. In response, Antonov said, he “stressed that what the United States of America is doing today is they are destroying whatever little is still left in Russia-U.S. relations,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “We take these actions to demonstrate our unbreakable solidarity with the United Kingdom, and to impose serious consequences on Russia for its continued violations of international norms.”
The cascade of expulsions drew expressions of gratitude from Britain, which has sought a stiff response to the attack.
“Today’s extraordinary international response by our allies stands in history as the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever & will help defend our shared security,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Russia cannot break international rules with impunity.”
Russia typically responds to such moves with tit-for-tat measures that expel an equal number of diplomats, sometimes after a delay of several days as the country’s policymakers consider countermeasures. For that reason, small nations that have only a handful of diplomats posted to Russia may refrain from more extensive expulsions.
Russian embassies around the world sometimes use their Twitter accounts to troll their host nations, and Monday was no exception. The Russian Embassy in Washington took to Twitter to crowdsource its response: “US administration ordered the closure of the Russian Consulate in Seattle @GK_Seattle. What US Consulate General would you close in @Russia, if it was up to you to decide”? The tweet included a poll with three options: U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.
Michael Birnbaum in Brussels; Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan in Washington; Matthew Bodner in Moscow; and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.