MOSCOW — Russia will close the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg and kick out 60 American diplomats in response to Monday’s coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats from the United States and a number of other countries, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.
The move continues an ongoing escalation of tit for tat between Moscow and the West that began in early March with the alleged poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil with a Soviet-designed nerve agent. American officials said Thursday that another round might be coming.
“We reserve the right to respond,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in Washington. “Russia should not be acting like a victim,” she said, calling Moscow’s move “regrettable” and “unwarranted.”
U.S. Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr. was summoned Thursday night to the Foreign Ministry, where Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov informed him of Russia’s response.
According to a Foreign Ministry statement, 58 American diplomats from the Moscow embassy and two from the consulate in Yekaterinburg have been declared persona non grata. The United States expelled 60 Russians on Monday.
The other U.S. consulate in Russia, in Vladivostok, will not be affected.
U.S. officials have hinted at further moves. A Russian news outlet, RBC, earlier Thursday quoted Huntsman as saying that such a move was “possible,” though the U.S. Embassy later released a transcript of his interview indicating that he was misquoted.
According to a Foreign Ministry readout of Huntsman’s meeting with Ryabkov, the U.S. ambassador was rebuked for the reported remark and warned that such a move would have the “gravest consequences for global stability.”
In addition to the expulsion of Russian diplomats Monday, the United States closed Russia’s consulate in Seattle — claiming it to be a hub of Russian intelligence activity and citing its proximity to a major U.S. nuclear submarine base.
On March 14, British Prime Minister Theresa May had ordered the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats after Moscow rebuffed an earlier demand to explain how a Soviet-designed and Russian-produced nerve agent known as Novichok came to be used in Britain.
Last week, 10 of Britain’s allies, including the United States, agreed to coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats, believed to be intelligence officers, from their respective countries. The movement grew this week to include 27 countries. A tally by the Associated Press put the total number of expelled Russian diplomats at more than 150. The number of expulsions in other nations was mostly in the single digits.
“All [measures] regarding the number of people who will have to leave the Russian Federation . . . will also be mirrored with respect to other countries,” Lavrov said. “This is the situation as of now.”
Russia’s move, in particular against the United States, “is a minor escalation,” said Alexander Gabuev, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former foreign policy correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper.
“Sixty diplomats is tit for tat, but shutting down the consulate in St. Petersburg is asymmetrical and escalatory — a mirror response would have been to shut down the Vladivostok consulate.”
Another analyst, Vladimir Frolov, disagreed that Russia had escalated. “It was a matching response,” Frolov said. “I was expecting them to close two U.S. consulates.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry ran a poll on Twitter this week asking users to vote on which of the three consulates to respond against. St. Petersburg won the poll. Vladivostok is the headquarters of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
The St. Petersburg consulate has been given two days to pack up. All 60 of the American diplomats subject to the expulsion order have one week to leave.
Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down have maintained that Moscow had nothing to do with the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in the British town of Salisbury on March 4.
Both Skripals remain hospitalized. British authorities said Thursday that Yulia Skripal was showing signs of recovery, while her father remained in serious but stable condition. A police officer who came in contact with the substance also was hospitalized but has since recovered.
Speaking before Parliament on Monday, May said that around 130 British citizens came in contact with the substance. May also said that Russia has offered 21 different arguments concerning the use of the Novichok agent.
Those arguments included denials that Novichok ever existed as well as accusing other former Soviet satellites of producing it. The only thread linking these denials is that Moscow had nothing to do with it and that the accusations are little more than a provocation.
Frolov said that Moscow’s strategy probably will focus on shouldering the blow from the current round of expulsions and pivoting its attention to organizing a summit with President Trump.
“Putin is hoping to use his charm, just as he did with Bush in 2001,” Frolov said, referring to President George W. Bush. “Putin needs to move quickly from here to there to score, but finds himself blocked by Theresa May.”
But it may take a considerable amount of charm to overcome this week’s moves.
“It is clear from the list provided to us,” the State Department’s Nauert said, referring to the expelled diplomats, “that the Russian Federation is not interested in dialogue on the issues that matter to our two countries.”
Meanwhile, Russia has demanded that Britain hand over a sample of the substance used in the poisoning for analysis and demanded access to Yulia Skripal — a Russian citizen. Britain has not ceded to either demand.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international body, has arrived in Salisbury to conduct its own analysis of the chemical used in the poisoning. It is expected to reveal its findings in two or three weeks.
The OPCW has said it will hand over its findings to Britain, the Tass news agency reported Thursday.
Lavrov said that Russia was calling for a special session of the OPCW’s executive council April 4 to discuss the situation, establish a dialogue and “raise specific questions” about the Skripals’ poisoning and the alleged use of Novichok.
If Western nations shy away from engaging in dialogue via the OPCW, Lavrov said, it would prove that the allegations against Moscow are nothing more than a “brazen provocation.” He also said that the OPCW could confirm only the substance used, not Britain’s assertions that Russia was behind it.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the U.S. Embassy said Huntsman had been misquoted by news outlet RBC.