The Trump administration on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence and diplomatic officers in New York and Washington and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle in retaliation of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Twelve Russian diplomats at the United Nations in New York and 48 at the Russian Embassy in Washington face expulsion by the U.S. government for what senior administration officials described as covert intelligence operations that undermine U.S. national security.
The U.S. government also is closing the Russian consulate in Seattle, which senior administration officials said they believe has served as a key outpost in Russia’s intelligence operations.
The moves announced Monday are the Trump administration’s toughest response yet to the March 4 nerve-agent attack in Salisbury by Russia that critically injured a former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.
“This was a reckless attempt by the government to murder a British citizens and his daughter on British soil with a nerve agent,” said a senior administration official, who was only authorized to discuss the actions on the condition of anonymity. “It cannot go unanswered.”
European nations were also set to announce coordinated expulsions of Russian diplomats following the nerve-agent attack in Britain.
The actions, which could prompt retaliatory strikes against U.S. diplomats in Russia, come in contrast to President Donald Trump’s efforts to foster a warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a phone call to Putin last week, Trump rejected the counsel of his national security advisers and congratulated Putin on his reelection victory.
Although Trump’s administration is taking action to punish Russia for the attack in Britain, Trump did not personally confront Putin on the attack during their phone call, administration officials have said.
“To the Russian government, we say, when you attack our friend you will face serious consequences,” said a senior administration official. “As we have continually stressed to Moscow, the door to dialogue is open.” But, this official continued, Russia must “cease its recklessly aggressive behavior.”
Administration officials said the Russian government has been notified about the expulsions and that the selected diplomats and intelligence officers have seven days to leave the United States.
The expulsion of 60 diplomats is the most sweeping since the Reagan administration ordered 55 diplomats out of the country in 1986.
In December 2016, the Obama administration expelled 35 suspected Russian intelligence officers in retaliation for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election.
Then last July, the Kremlin ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic staff by 755 employees in response to the passage of legislation in the U.S. Congress imposing new sanctions on Russia for its election interference.
In response to Moscow’s move, the Trump administration last August shut the Russian consulate in San Francisco and diplomatic annexes in New York and Washington.
“They’ll certainly retaliate,” said Michael Sulick, a former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and a former Moscow station chief. “The Russians live by strict reciprocity. It’s tit for tat all the time.”
The only time they did not do so, Sulick noted, was after the Obama administration’s move to expel 35 Russians. In that case, however, according to court records, it appears their restraint was prompted by calls between Trump’s then-incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and then-Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak, has admitted that in December 2016 he urged Kislyak not to escalate an ongoing feud over sanctions, according to court records. The Washington Post reported that Flynn had assured Kislyak that the issue would be revisited once Trump took office.
Flynn is now cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump.
The Trump administration’s move shows solidarity with Britain. “You have to send some kind of message,” Sulick said. “You can’t go around poisoning people.”
But Putin likely will see this as a temporary setback, knowing that over time he can replace intelligence officers, Sulick said. If it were up to him, he said, he’d be taking more aggressive actions, such as revealing “financial information that would embarrass Putin on the world stage,” or other actions that would “really cut into him” economically.
“The Russians only understand one thing – when the boot is on their neck, and you keep pressing down,” Sulick said.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Philip Rucker, Ellen Nakashima