Moscow has given two Australian diplomats a week to leave Russia in retaliation for Canberra’s expulsion of two alleged Kremlin spies earlier this week.
The two Australians are among 59 officials expelled from Russia in the latest escalation of tensions over the nerve agent attack on the former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the UK this month.
Australia’s ambassador to Russia, Peter Tesch, was among the diplomats summoned to the Russian foreign ministry on Friday to be told of the expulsions. The diplomatic mission in Moscow has 10 staff.
In a joint statement on Saturday morning, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said there was no justification for Russia’s expulsions.
“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,” they said.
“Australia’s action was in concert with 28 other nations expelling a total of 153 Russian diplomats in an unprecedented demonstration of global solidarity with the United Kingdom.”
In total, Russia will expel 59 diplomats from 23 countries. It had already expelled 23 British and 60 American diplomats earlier in the week.
Turnbull and Bishop again called on Russia to explain how a Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent was used in the attack in Salisbury.
“Together with many nations, including our closest allies, Australia stands with the United Kingdom as we condemn the outrageous use of a banned Russian nerve agent on British soil, in the first chemical weapons attack in Europe since World War II,” the statement said.
“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.”
Russia’s retaliation was widely expected and is a proportionate mirroring of Australia’s actions earlier this week.
Bishop had announced that two Russian spies had been given six days to leave Australia, in a show of solidarity with the UK over the poisoning.
In announcing the expulsion, Turnbull said Russia’s actions were the latest in a “pattern of recklessness and aggression by the Russian government”.
That pattern included the downing of MH17, the annexation of Crimea and efforts to manipulate western elections, Turnbull said.
The comments prompted an indignant response from Russia. Its ambassador to Australia, Grigory Logvinov, denied that the two expelled diplomats were spies. He said they were simply diplomatic workers, and claimed Russia had no spies in its Australian mission. He accused Australia of blindly following its allies, despite a lack of evidence of Russian involvement in the Salisbury attack.
In a lengthy press conference on Wednesday, Logvinov said Australia was involved in a “well-orchestrated campaign” to discredit and attack Russia.
“All of these anti-Russian campaigns we’d consider as very rude, very primitive and incompetent provocations,” he said.
“It’s quite clear, the campaign about so-called Russian interference into domestic politics in the US … [has] turned out to be nothing.”
Russia has insisted it had no involvement in the attack on Skripal. Skripal’s daughter, previously in a critical condition, is now recovering and is expected to help British authorities with their investigation.
Theresa May’s government says it has compelling evidence of Russia’s involvement.
The attack involved the novichuk nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, which is thought to have been placed outside Skripal’s door in Salisbury. The agent attacks the nervous system, preventing chemical messages being transmitted around the body, and causes the heart to slow and airways to constrict.
The British government has passed samples on to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for testing.
It has not made the evidence public but has shared it with its allies, who are confident of Russia’s involvement.
The attack prompted a coordinated diplomatic effort to expel alleged Russian spies from more than 20 western countries last week.
More than 100 Russian diplomats alleged to be spies were kicked out, in what is thought to be the largest diplomatic blow to Russian intelligence networks since the cold war.