Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed two Australians are among 59 officials expelled from Russia in a worsening standoff with the West over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.
Mr Turnbull said the two diplomats have been given seven days to leave Moscow.
“This is a disappointing, although not unexpected, reaction by the Russian Government to the decision of the Australian Government to expel two Russian diplomats working as undeclared intelligence officers,” he said in a statement.
“The staff to be expelled from Australia’s embassy were fulfilling their diplomatic and consular functions in accordance with the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations, and there is no justification for this action by Russia.”
Russia said it was responding to what it called the baseless demands for scores of its own diplomats to leave a slew of mostly Western countries that have joined London and Washington in censuring Moscowover the
poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.During the course of Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned senior embassy officials from Australia, Albania, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Croatia, Ukraine, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.
All were seen arriving in their official cars at the ministry’s gothic building in Moscow.
“They [the diplomats] were handed protest notes and told that in response to the unwarranted demands of the relevant states on expelling Russian diplomats … that the Russian side declares the corresponding number of staff working in those countries’ embassies in the Russian Federation persona non grata,” the ministry said in a statement.
This week the Australian Federal Government announced it was expelling two Russian spies, in solidarity with the United Kingdom.
Russia has already retaliated in kind against Britain for ejecting 23 diplomats over the first known use of a military-grade nerve agent on European soil since World War II.
A day earlier, Moscow ordered the expulsion of 60 US diplomats and the closing of the US consulate in St Petersburg, Russia’s second city, in retaliation for the biggest ejection of diplomats since the Cold War.
The poisoning, in southern England, has united much of the West in taking action against what it regards as the hostile policies of President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Turnbull said Australia stood with the UK in condemning Russia for the “outrageous” use of the nerve agent.
“The Russian Government must explain how a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia was used in the UK, endangering the lives of hundreds of people,” he said.
“The Russian Government must also explain why its Novichok program has not been declared to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, consistent with its legal obligations.”
Russia has rejected the accusation it was behind the attack and has cast the allegations as part of an elaborate Western plot to sabotage East-West relations and isolate Moscow.
The hospital where Ms Skripal is being treated said on Thursday that she was getting better after spending three weeks in a critical condition due to the nerve toxin attack.
Her father remains in a critical but stable condition.
Four other countries, Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro, had only “at the last moment” announced that they too were expelling Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair, and Moscow reserved the right to take retaliatory action against them too, it said.
Consulate closure causes visa uncertainty
In response to the US move earlier this week to close the Russian Consulate in Seattle, Moscow also shut the US consulate in St Petersburg, giving it until Saturday to vacate the premises.
Preparations appeared to be under way on Friday to close the St Petersburg mission down, with a removals truck making repeated journeys to and from the consulate which took delivery of a large pizza order for its staff.
Some passers-by near the consulate cheered the expulsions.
“Let them get out of here,” said 61-year-old retiree Viktor Fedin.
“You won’t put Russia on its knees.”
Others were more cautious, worried that the closures would affect visa processing for Russians.
“The Russian Government has to respond to the hostile actions against Russia,” said 32-year-old researcher Yelena Bogomazova.
“But the escalation is bad. The closure of the consulate will make it difficult for people to get US visas. They will have to go to Moscow.”
In a statement that reflects the soaring tensions, Moscow accused Washington of trying to recruit the Russian diplomats it has expelled as spies.