spy spat

Berlin expels Russian diplomats in solidarity with London

Russische Botschaft in Berlin
Mother Russia will be welcoming some children home. Source: DPA

As governments around the world send Russian diplomats home in solidarity with London, Berlin sent back four. The expulsions are a rare act of coordination among European nations and a sign of concern amid a deepening crisis.

So far, 14 European governments have sent diplomats from Moscow back, including France, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Ukraine will also follow suit, according to a report by news agency AFP. Other countries, including Canada, took similar action. In televised comments, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said that further governments in the bloc might also expel Russian diplomats.

As London grapples with the case of the former Russian spy who was poisoned, last Friday the EU agreed with London’s assessment that the Kremlin was behind the incident. That same day, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said further actions were necessary. Officials from the French government said they too were ready to take action. Over the weekend, the EU promised the UK its “unrestricted solidarity.” And Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s diplomatic chief, recalled the EU’s envoy to Moscow, Markus Ederer, a German diplomat, to Brussels for consultations.

“This unfriendly step by this group of countries won’t pass without impact and we will respond.”

Russian, foreign ministry

Europe’s latest moves show even stronger support for London following the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, a small town in southern England. The two were found unconscious on a park bench on March 4 and remain in critical condition. According to investigations, they were injured by a military-grade nerve agent. Its source is unclear. Directly afterwards, UK Prime Minister Theresa May called on Moscow for an explanation; when none was forthcoming, she expelled 23 diplomats. Russia responded in kind, closing the British Council after the attack and calling on the UK to close its consulate in St. Petersburg.

On Monday, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, called for 60 “Russian intelligence officers” to return to Moscow and for Russia to close a consulate in Seattle, Washington.

The unfolding crisis affected Russia’s financial markets on Monday, as the relationship between Moscow and western countries deteriorates to its worst since the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Russia promised to retaliate. A statement made on the website of Moscow’s foreign ministry said, “This unfriendly step by this group of countries won’t pass without impact and we will respond.”

Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, said Russia still hadn’t explained what happened to Mr. Skripal. And Mr. Maas criticized the Russian government for not showing any willingness to play a constructive role in clarifying what happened to the former spy and his daughter. “It’s clear that this attack can’t remain without consequences,” he said. The four diplomats affected have a background in intelligence, according to a report in the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

The ministry noted that the step was taken against the background of the cyber operation targeting the German government’s IT system. The attack is believed to have originated in Russia and was revealed in February.

However, Mr. Maas also tweeted that the decision to expel the diplomats was not easily made. And Berlin underlined that politicians remain in dialogue with Russia.

Germany historically has a closer relationship to Russia than many other countries in Western Europe and has tended to maintain strong ties to Moscow. There is little doubt the new government will find the unfolding crisis a test of its values and diplomatic skills.

Moritz Koch is a political correspondent for Handelsblatt. Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: a.williams@handelsblattgroup.com and m.koch@handelsblattgroup.com

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