- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2018

President Trump expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers Monday and closed Russia’s consulate in Seattle, joining European allies in punishing Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.

In one of his most dramatic confrontations with Russia for its covert actions, Mr. Trump ordered the expulsions of 48 officials working at the Russian Embassy in Washington and 12 intelligence officers assigned to Russia’s mission at the United Nations in New York.

The U.S. is giving the Russian operatives and their families seven days to leave the country.

The president’s move led a wave Monday of at least 21 countries expelling more than 100 Russian officials. British Prime Minister Theresa May called it the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.

The White House said Russia must be confronted over its brazen attack with a military-grade nerve agent on March 4 in Salisbury, England. The attack critically injured the former double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter. A police officer is also seriously ill from exposure to the poison.

“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,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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Russian officials have repeatedly denied any role in the nerve agent attack. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday vowed to respond by booting out U.S. diplomats.

“We already stated and reconfirm that Russia has never had any relation to this case,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We will be guided by the reciprocity principle.”

He said Mr. Putin will personally approve retaliation after receiving recommendations.

While the Trump administration’s move is in response to the poisoning case, U.S. officials said it is also a reaction to Russia’s “steady drumbeat of destabilizing activities.” A senior administration official said the actions will help curtail Russia’s “increasingly aggressive intelligence activities” in the U.S.

The U.S. considers the diplomats to be spies carrying out intelligence activities under cover as embassy staff, administration officials said. They said Russia has more than 100 spies in the U.S., a number that one official called “unacceptably large.”

Earlier this month, the administration imposed sanctions on Russians engaged in cyberattacks on the U.S. election process in 2016.

Mrs. May has ordered 23 suspected Russian spies to leave Britain over the attack. On Monday, she told the British Parliament that the attack was “a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and — as an unlawful use of force — a clear breach of the U.N. Charter” and part of “a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behavior.”

“President Putin’s regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values,” she said.

The prime minster also applauded so many countries for announcing plans to “expel more than 100 Russian intelligence officers.”

“I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident,” Mrs. May said.

Western allies widely welcomed Mr. Trump’s move as a sign that Washington is increasingly willing to confront Moscow.

“There is a false narrative that the Trump administration is weak on Russia,” said Nile Gardiner, who served as foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “The reality is that the present U.S. administration has done more to combat Putin’s aggression than the Obama administration.”

The president of the international political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer, applauded Mr. Trump on Twitter for making “a bigger move” than what European allies were doing.

“Getting harder to say Trump’s treating Putin with kid gloves,” Mr. Bremmer said.

The U.S. move was coordinated with 14 European nations, which also announced the expulsions of Russian diplomats.

“We remain critical of the actions of the Russian government,” European Council President Donald Tusk said. “Additional measures, including further expulsions within the common EU framework, are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks.”

Among the countries to expel Russian diplomats or intelligence agents are Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Croatia, Sweden, Ukraine and Canada.

In Poland, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz blasted Russia for disrupting international order and creating “a sense of danger.”

Mr. Czaputowicz said Poland was taking unprecedented action against Moscow and told the Russian ambassador and three other diplomats that they had until April 3 to leave the country.

Canada said it is expelling four Russian diplomats and denying entry to three others.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said the nerve agent attack “is a despicable, heinous and reckless act, potentially endangering the lives of hundreds.”

“This is part of a wider pattern of unacceptable behavior by Russia, including complicity with the Assad regime [in Syria], the annexation of Crimea, Russian-led fighting in eastern Ukraine, support for civil strife in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other neighboring countries, interference in elections, and disinformation campaigns,” she said.

The closing of the Russian Consulate in Seattle will degrade Moscow’s capability to conduct intelligence activities on the West Coast, a U.S. official said.

Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Putin by phone last week. He congratulated Mr. Putin on his re-election and suggesting that the two leaders would meet soon. Officials said Mr. Trump has not spoken with Mr. Putin about the expulsions.

The White House said Mr. Trump still believes cooperation with Russia is possible.

“The president wants to work with Russia,” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said. “But their actions sometimes don’t allow that to happen. Our relationship with Russia is, frankly, up to the Russian government, and up to Vladimir Putin and others in senior leadership in Russia.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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