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U.S. follows UK’s lead, expels Russian intelligence officers in response to spy poisonings

More than a dozen European countries have followed suit.

U.K. and U.S. officials have issued retaliatory strikes against Russia, in response to a slew of attacks on former Russian spies living in Britain. (CREDIT: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)
U.K. and U.S. officials have issued retaliatory strikes against Russia, in response to a slew of attacks on former Russian spies living in Britain. (CREDIT: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)

The United States responded to a series of poisonings of ex-spies living in Britain this week by expelling 60 Russian intelligence officers from U.S. soil. The decision comes the same day U.K. officials said they would open a probe into the offshore wealth of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On Monday, the United States also announced it would close the Russian consulate in Seattle, “due to its proximity to one of [the country’s] submarine bases and Boeing.”

At least 14 European nations have followed suit, expelling Russian intelligence officers from their respective countries as well.

“The United States takes this action in conjunction with our NATO allies and partners around the world in response to Russia’s use of a military-grade chemical weapon on the soil of the United Kingdom, the latest in its ongoing pattern of destabilizing activities around the world,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated. “Today’s actions make the United States safer by reducing Russia’s ability to spy on Americans and conduct covert operations that threaten America’s national security.”

Sanders added the the move was meant to convey a message to Russia that “its actions have consequences.”

“The United States stands ready to cooperate to build a better relationship with Russia, but this can only happen with a change in the Russian government’s behavior.”

In response to the move, Russian officials on Monday announced that they would be expelling 60 U.S. diplomats as a retaliatory measure. In a statement to Russian news agency RIA, Vladimir Jabarov, first deputy chairman on Russia’s Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, added that U.S. President Trump had “undoubtedly” made the decision to remove Russian officers after extreme pressure from “the American establishment.”

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“He was subjected to extremely harsh criticism because he congratulated Vladimir Putin on his reelection,” Jabarov said, referencing the Russian president’s recent reelection victory in what many experts have called a “sham” election, and Trump’s decision to call and congratulate him, against the advice of national security staffers. “As a result, he had to make this decision…in order to prove that he not a friend of Russia.”

Russia is widely understood to have meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in an effort to sway the results in Trump’s favor, and members of the Trump campaign are currently under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller over allegations of collusion with Russian officials.

The string of attacks on ex-spies living in the U.K. was first exposed in a series of reports by BuzzFeed News last summer. The most recent of those attacks came on March 4, when witnesses found 66-year-old Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter, Julia, slumped over on a bench near a shopping center near Salisbury. The two were rushed to the hospital, where they remain in critical condition.

A few days later, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking in the House of Commons, announced that Skripal and his daughter had been poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent previously developed by Russia. By March 14, the U.K. had announced it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the attack.

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Monday morning, Tom Tugendhat, chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, stated that the U.K. would also open a probe into Russian President Putin’s offshore finances.

“There is a clear pattern of suspicious deaths in the U.K. and around the world which was exposed last year by BuzzFeed News and merely confirmed by the attack on the Skripals and the murder of Nikolai Glushkov,” Tugendhat said. “It’s clear that we can’t turn a blind eye to these acts. In response, the U.K. will not break the law but nor should we turn a blind eye to the use of our financial and legal services to hide Russian wealth in jurisdictions we oversee.”

Despite the U.K.’s aggressive stance on the matter, the White House was initially hesitant to support its assessment of the attacks, stating only that it would “stand by” its ally and offer support if needed. After days of hedging and avoiding the topic, the White House finally caved, admitting in a statement that Russia was likely to blame for the series of poisonings and assassinations.

“This latest action by Russia fits into a pattern of behavior in which Russia disregards the international rules-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide, and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes,” Sanders stated on March 15. “The United States is working together with our allies and partners to ensure that this kind of abhorrent attack does not happen again.”